What Is Presenteeism and How Does it Affect Workplace Productivity?

It’s spring now, but before you know it, the cold weather will return. With it will come a slew of germs that could cause people at work to get sick. You would hope that if someone did come down with something, they’d stay home and rest up. However, this is very rarely the case. That’s why workplace presenteeism has become such a problem. What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is when an employee who’s ill comes into the office anyway instead of taking a sick day or two. It’s the opposite of absenteeism. With this, the employee would miss too much time from work, often for undisclosed reasons.

While it may sound like it’s better for an office to have a problem with presenteeism than absenteeism, that’s not quite true. Both issues can negatively impact workplace productivity. In this article, we’ll talk about all elements of presenteeism, including why it’s happening so much, what to do if it occurs in your office, and how to stay healthy in the interim.

What Is Presenteeism in the Workplace?

As we covered in the intro, presenteeism in the workplace occurs when ill employees come into work. The employee could have anything from a common cold to even a flu and still try to drag themselves into the office. This may seem like a good idea to them, because it’s better to be there than not, right? Not really.  

How Does Presenteeism Affect Workplace Productivity?

The problem with presenteeism stems from the lack of productivity that occurs when trying to work when you’re not feeling well. Have you ever taken a day off when you got sick, but you tried to get some work done anyway? It’s so hard to concentrate. You’re exhausted, you’re constantly blowing your nose and sniffling, and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. You just want to lie down and take a nap.

Now, imagine feeling that way but still going to work. How much do you realistically get done? You might think you can push past the feelings of fatigue, sniffliness, runniness, and even nausea. In the end, it doesn’t quite go like that.

This 2004 article in Harvard Business ReviewOpens in a new tab. cites a study from the Journal of American Medical Association from 2003. The research proved that employees with depression alone had such a productivity drop at work that they ended up making their companies lose $35 billion. That’s annually, by the way.

Let’s look outside of the scope of illness and into another productivity killer: bodily pain. Whether from a medical condition, a chronic injury, or just age, pain makes it very difficult to do much. That same 2003 study said pain could cause a company losses of $47 billion each year. The study focused specifically on back pain, headaches, and arthritis, but any pain would apply, we’d say.

Now, considering these stats are close to 20 years old, we can only imagine what kind of lost money today’s company would face from presenteeism.  (We have written a book review on The Vibrant WorkplaceOpens in a new tab. which will provides solutions to dealing with presenteeism).

Why Does Presenteeism Occur So Much These Days?

Presenteeism has become quite a serious issue, especially in some job fields. These include doctors, teachers, and others with crucial roles in the healthcare and education industries. What reasons motivate these people and countless others to come into work even when they’re not feeling well?

Here’s an overview.

Having Performance-Based Self-Esteem

Performance-based self-esteem or PBSE, as the name might tell you, means your job plays a big role in how you feel about yourself. If you’re doing great at work, then you have a great outlook. If you make a mistake or get reprimanded, though, your self-esteem can plummet.

If you have PBSE, then you probably build your whole world around your job. You don’t have means of personal fulfillment that make you feel good. You rely on the approval you get at the office to keep your self-esteem afloat. That means you’ll come in even when you’re sick so you can avoid negative repercussions from an absence.

A 2007 study that appeared in Med TeachOpens in a new tab. reviewed male and female medical school students with PBSE. They found that exhaustion occurred often. Females tended to have more fatigue.

What the study also reported was those who have PBSE have a higher tendency to burn out. This in turn affects their health, creating a vicious cycle of feeling ill yet engaging in presenteeism because of the PBSE.

Being a Workaholic

Not only do those with PBSE feel like they can’t skip a day, but so do workaholics. Whether because of a high-pressure job, a family upbringing, or a slew of other reasons, workaholics don’t know when to call it a day and never have. They’re often the first ones at the office and the last ones to leave. Of course, if they get sick, they’re going to muster through it and go to work anyway.

2009 research in the International Journal of Stress ManagementOpens in a new tab. reported that these workaholics often had less happiness and more burnout compared to non-workaholics. When you think about it, it’s easy to figure out why that is.

The Demands of the Job

Some people don’t become workaholics by choice. They’re forced into the role due to the massive workloads and job demands of their occupation. These people may worry for the security of their job if they take too much time away to recover from an illness.

More than likely, they worry even more about falling behind. If you’re always just barely treading water in terms of your workload, then missing even one day will cause you to sink. Staying away for too long will make you drown. These types of people feel like they can’t step away from their jobs for any reason.

Issues of Being Replaced

On the note of job security, the feeling of replacement can drive people to presenteeism. If you’re afraid you could get replaced if you miss too much time from work, then of course you’ll feel like you have to show up no matter what. That’s true even if you’re under the weather.

Surprisingly, even if an employee doesn’t think they’re replaceable, they still tend to engage in presenteeism. Why would go to work when ill if they know no one else can do the job as well as them? That’s the very reason. If no one else can do the job, then this person feels like they can’t miss a day. Someone has to be there to fill the spot.

This degree of presenteeism happens very often in the medical industry, especially among doctors.

Not Having a Permanent Job

If you’re a temporary employee, then you’re working towards getting a permanent position, right? More than often, yes. That may make you feel like you have to do everything perfectly. If you’re a little sick, then you’ll come into work anyway. You’re trying to prove you’re the man or woman for the job, which means gritting your teeth and doing the job even when sick.

What Should You Do When Presenteeism Runs Rampant in Your Office?

You might have a healthy attitude towards resting when sick, but the rest of your office does not share the same sentiment. Presenteeism has become a problem at your job. All these sick people around the office aren’t doing their work. That means it gets delegated to others, even yourself. Worse yet, now more people have gotten sick because the presenteeism employees brought their germs into the office.

When you go home, you risk infecting your family with the same illness. Sometimes it feels like you’re always sick or you’re stuck around someone else who is. How do you end the cycle once and for all?

You need to talk to your boss, manager, or even human resources professional. Unless the employees get express approval and even permission to stay at home when sick, the problem will continue. You can get the ball rolling on that by complaining.

The more people who complain about the sick people slogging around at work, the more likely your boss/HR manager to listen and do something about it. Only when they decide to make a wholesale change will presenteeism at your office decrease.

Do know that some people will still go to work even when they’re sick. If they’re a workaholic or a person with performance-based self-esteem, then they probably can’t help themselves.

How to Deal with Presenteeism Personally

You’ve complained to your boss and HR manager and you’re waiting for them to come up with a resolution. What can you do about your workplace presenteeism problem for yourself in the meantime?

You need to stay healthy. This should remain your top priority. That means washing your hands often with soap and water. As you wash your hands, lather them up adequately before rinsing. Bring hand sanitizer for those times you can’t go to the bathroom.

Try to avoid touching surfaces that other sick people have put their hands on. Use disinfecting wipes or spray on those surfaces, especially communal ones like conference rooms, bathrooms, and office kitchens.

Do your best to stay away from the sick person until they’re feeling better. Send emails or instant messages to them rather than wander over to their cubicle. Don’t use their phone or computer.

Never touch your face unless your hands are clean. Wash your hands before you eat. When you get home, wash your hands again.

Also, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. If you’re not getting adequate sleep (seven to eight hours a night) or you’re overworking yourself, you’ll join the rest of your coworkers and get sick.

Related Questions

What is absenteeism in the workplace?  Absenteeism is when an employee takes too much time off work. It’s the opposite of presenteeism. The employee rarely plans to not go to work, but they still don’t show up. This can throw productivity in a lurch.

Also, a hallmark of absenteeism is the employee doesn’t take off for any one specific thing. They’re not at home because they’re sick or injured. There’s no personal matter that needed their attention. They just don’t come to work.

Should you make employees fill out a presenteeism questionnaire?  Some workplaces request their employees complete a presenteeism questionnaire. The World Health OrganizationOpens in a new tab. has several surveys you can choose from. They’re available in PDF format.

If your boss or HR manager ask you to do one of these questionnaires, it’s often to begin to combat presenteeism. The survey may ask questions like:

  • – The state of your current physical and mental health
  • – Which medical conditions you have, including chronic pain conditions
  • – Whether you smoke and drink alcohol, and if so, how often
  • – How well you can concentrate and pay attention
  • – Your exhaustion levels and how much sleep you’re getting
  • – Whether you were in a recent accident

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