What presenteeism means, and why it’s becoming a problem...


Presenteeism is the technical word for employees attending work when they’re not well enough – be it physically or mentally. Essentially, it’s the opposite of absenteeism.  

Surely, presenteeism can’t be a bad thing, right? Particularly as high levels of employee absenteeism result in no work being done? Wrong! Presenteeism can have a detrimental impact on organisations, as despite employees being present – they’re not necessarily in a fit state to work.

In recent years, levels of presenteeism have skyrocketed, tripling between 2010 and 2018, from 26% in 2010 to 72% in 2016 according to CIPD/Simplyhealth’s 2018 ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work’ survey.  

With presenteeism on the rise, it still goes unrecognised within many businesses, and is fast becoming an issue, with limited companies knowing how to tackle it effectively.  

A sick employee is not a productive or efficient employee, nor are they able to work at the same high standard as a healthy employee. And such illness, be it mental or physical, can often impact neighbouring colleagues, through lower morale, the spread of germs and infection.  


Common reasons for presenteeism…


  • Fear of losing one’s job/losing out on a promotion 
  • Lack of sick days available or no sick pay 
  • A large or stressful workload  
  • Feelings of guilt due to staff shortages 
  • Feelings of loyalty to the company 


If presenteeism is so bad for business, how can it be addressed?


Addressing presenteeism is often a balancing act between keeping absence levels low to ensure effective running of a business and allowing staff the time they need off work to rest and improve their health. 

CIPD/Simplyhealth’s 2018 survey revealed that only 25% of those who had experienced presenteeism had taken steps to discourage it.


5 steps to get a better handle…

Step one: Review and update internal policies

Managing sickness and absence effectively in the workplace often means establishing succinct policies and then communicating these policies back to employees.  

Such policies should tell employees that they are encouraged not to attend work when unwell, and if they don’t convey this message, they should be updated to ensure they do.  

Simple changes to sickness and absence policies can help to create an environment that puts employee health and wellbeing first, rather than focusing on attendance numbers.

Step two: Communications 

After updating out-of-date sickness and absence policies, all internal practices and communications will need to be reviewed and updated to ensure they are consistent and include the right messaging.  

An example would be… Should a return to work interview contain a message that the employee has done wrong by taking time off when they are too ill to come to work - this is likely to contribute towards presenteeism.  

Managers should instead convey the message that the company understands the need for time off to recover during periods of poor health to their employees, in a bid to prevent presenteeism. 


Step three: Management training 

Management training on how to communicate appropriately and sensitively in the circumstances of sickness and absence will also help.  

This does not mean that absence levels cannot be managed and actioned when they become unacceptable. But how this is managed will have a consequential impact on those employees who need time off to recover from a genuine illness.  

Leniency and setting action points at a reasonable level, where informal action is initially undertaken, will help prevent those suffering illnesses from undue formal action. 


Step four: Recognise symptoms and introduce a wellness programme 

Although managers are continually being informed about, and perhaps trained on, the importance of identifying symptoms of ill health, especially poor mental health, employers need to assess how managers handle ill health amongst employees once this identification has taken place.  

Speaking to an employee and encouraging them to go home to recover, while reassuring and discussing work cover at this stage, is surely a better position for a department to be in than having a colleague present at work, potentially affecting other employee’s health and not completing work as they should. 

One way of approaching wellbeing strategically by identifying any physical, mental, social or financial pain points is by providing solutions through a wellness programme. This could include the likes of; free access to counselling services, exercise or breathing classes (meditation) as well as financial advice. 


Step five: Promote flexible working 

Giving employees the option to work flexibly is proven to reduce workplace stress and presenteeism.  

Allowing individuals to work from home occasionally and flex their start and finish times in line with life commitments are good practices to introduce, if not already in place.  


Have you considered that absenteeism has simply shifted to presenteeism? 


  • Staff wellbeing should always come first, after all, if you look after your employees, they will look after you - and your business. 
  • Business culture is often a major cause of presenteeism. Such factors include: 
  • Not offering employees sick pay 
  • Managers who set a bad example by working when sick encourage similar behaviour in their teams 
  • Job insecurity for staff, especially when bosses regard attendance as a sign of commitment 
  • Employees who know that being absent would make more work for colleagues, for example, teachers and nurses, are most likely to work while unwell too 
  • Stressful workloads 


Some companies may well have seen a decrease in absence rates and in-turn have congratulated themselves for delivering a healthy workplace.  

Yet it could simple be that absenteeism has shifted to presenteeism.


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