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Presenteeism Vs. Productivity, + HR Tech to Promote Real Work Value

Why workers fear taking time off, ignore their health, and create illusions of productivity

Ali Felman
Strategic People Operations and Training Specialist
November 15, 2022
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Imagine that the very day an important client meeting is scheduled, you wake up with an impossibly sore throat and a throbbing headache. Like many employees, you might try to get through the day as planned, prioritizing work over taking rest to feel better. The meeting goes alright — but you know it would have gone much better had you been feeling up to par.

Or, imagine that your company has implemented a hybrid work policy that mandates office attendance twice per week. On an in-office day, you find that the day has slipped by and you haven’t been quite as productive as you’d hoped, so you stay an hour late to compensate for the productivity loss. You know that, had you been away from the exciting social opportunities that the office presents, you would have easily met your goals for the day.

Being technically present but ineffective is a common barrier to useful, productive work. We call this barrier presenteeism.

In This Article

What is Presenteeism?

We have all been in situations like the ones described above where we were technically present but were less effective than under normal circumstances.

Sickness presenteeism is traditionally defined as showing up to work, either remotely or in-office, when you’re not physically or mentally well. Presenteeism at work can also refer to a worker pulling extra hours to create an inflated perception of productivity.

The term also refers to behaviors that signal productivity, such as changing one’s status to “online” or being at a physical place of work, without necessarily producing a proportional output. This stems from an employee's desire to look busier than they actually are to either mislead superiors or avoid reprimands regarding their productivity by simply appearing productive.

Whichever form it takes, presenteeism can be understood as a disconnect between the optics of one’s productivity and one’s actual work.

Common Examples of Presenteeism

The effects of presenteeism show up in the workplace in a myriad of ways.

  • An employee might experience mild or moderate symptoms, like a headache or a cough, but decide to “push through” and come into the office. This is often due to a perception (founded or unfounded in managerial culture) that sick leave reflects poorly on their performance.
  • An employee might reply to messages at odd hours or instantaneously with the intent to appear as a hyper-diligent worker.
  • Remote work has brought about new forms of remote presenteeism. Employees working remotely might signal that they are working by changing their status to online, even after or before work hours.
  • Additionally, remote workers might have a higher threshold for taking a sick day, since they can work from home. They might consider themselves “not sick enough” and opt to work from bed in place of taking proper rest.
Man working late at an office

The Difference Between Presenteeism and Productivity

Standing opposite to presenteeism is real, valuable productivity. Productivity comes in various forms — strategic thinking, problem-solving, process optimization, new initiatives, and flow state work. A lot of this high value may not take long to achieve, but drives great value. Think of an account manager making one call that results in a highly profitable partnership in comparison to one who made twenty calls on the same day, but drove no revenue. Who was more productive?

The Puzzle of Measuring Productivity

Understanding how to measure and monitor employee productivity has long puzzled employers.

It’s easy to mistake being present, either in-person or digitally, for being productive. It’s much easier to gather binary data on whether an employee is working rather than the consistent quality of their work.

The common belief that what gets measured gets managed is highly applicable in business. But Villanova University professor J.S. Nelson said, “There are many things that need to be managed, but can’t be measured…Things like employee ethical engagement, loyalty, morale, team building, and enthusiasm for direction of the company, are key, and they are commonly at the heart of performance and productivity.”

Some thought leaders are even calling for the end of measuring productivity in the first place.

What is Worker Productivity?

Productivity inherently measures the quantity of output — regardless of its quality. If the number of hours worked produces a high output, managers have validation that an employee has been “productive.” And, while this measuring system might work well on a factory line, it is ineffective for knowledge workers who tend to have matrixed, complex, collaborative tasks. While a day spent brainstorming name ideas for a new product might not have a high quantity output (8 hours for just one name), it is a crucial task that affects many other aspects of the business.

Similarly, work may require experimentation to solve a problem. Imagine a coder writing and re-writing key software functionality. Various iterations of the code will end up in the hypothetical trash, not in the product, but are nonetheless critical stepping stones in reaching the eventual solution. When the final code is presented out of this context, it can be assumed that a fraction of the real input time was spent creating it.

Ironically, the desire to seem productive often creates counterproductivity. In the examples above, the workers may generate a list of extra product names or multiple extra lines of code simply to appease superiors that they were very productive.

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the time spent on a project, the bulk of work delivered, and real value. Yet, employers still attempt to measure employee productivity on input only, or output only. An increasingly popular option for input management is digital monitoring surveillance software. These tools analyze keystrokes, mouse movements, screens, and so on in order to denote the difference between presenteeism and actual output. But a lot of these tools are easily deceived.

Nelson articulates that this form of surveillance not only tends to drive out top-performing employees, which can be costly in itself, but also employees of marginalized backgrounds. This kind of perceived overreach implies distrust of a workforce and can alter the dynamics of the workplace for the worse.

Woman frustrated with work

Why is Presenteeism an Issue?

Presenteeism is a concern for companies. Particularly as organizations attempt to understand their employees’ behaviors and motivations after the Great Reshuffle while also analyzing profitability metrics to stay afloat during the current recession.

The consequences of presenteeism do not end with lost productivity, there is also a substantial financial cost to ignoring the risks of presenteeism. A study from the American Productivity Audit found that the cost of presenteeism in the U.S. runs over $150 billion annually. This is due to decreased work performance.

Moreover, presenteeism can have a dramatic impact on employee health. Data from JOEM shows that presenteeism correlates with a severe degree of exhaustion and also has ties to depression. In other words, employees who neglect to take sick leave and address their health problems for the sake of working are making matters worse in the long run.

How Presenteeism Correlates to Wellness

Long hours spent online or in-office to seem productive still take a toll. The same research shows that this stress manifests through impaired work performance, reiterating the interconnectedness of mental health conditions among employees, and organizational wellbeing.

Finally, presenteeism can dramatically affect team dynamics for the worse. Though often meaning well, teammates might feel pressure to “pick up the slack” for an underproductive colleague. Although the person is at work, workplace productivity is negatively affected by their poor health. Their teammates must make up for this by adding to their own workloads and feelings of stress. Not only could this mean a less productive team overall, but this imbalance could also lead to feelings of resentment.

Woman with flu working on computer

What Causes an Organizational Culture of Presenteeism?

Companies that see high rates of presenteeism have one or more cultural elements that lead to simulated productivity, or lessened productivity despite high presence. Here are some common causes of presenteeism:

Productivity Guilt

Employees that are assigned too large of a workload can feel shame or stress about leaving work unfinished. They perceive that leaving the office on time while a project is pending makes them appear like a poor team player. A study from the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that guilt, both anticipated and experienced, is a strong driver of presenteeism.

Absenteeism Guilt

Per the first example mentioned in this article, sick employees might feel guilty for prioritizing their health — they are under the impression that missing an important deadline or client meeting would have negative repercussions for them. Rather than imposing extra work onto colleagues or potentially appearing unreliable to a supervisor, the employee might choose to attend the meeting instead of calling in sick.

This behavior is especially common if the company culture and managerial decisions (such as promotions) have implied that poor health is an undesirable attribute in a worker before.

Lack of Barriers

Presenteeism can also arise from an “always-on” company culture. Historically, employees often wear overwork and burnout as a badge of honor. But the more we know about employee wellbeing, the more we know that workplace stress kills real productivity.

When many in a company appear to minimize the boundary between working and non-working hours by responding to communication at all hours, coming in early, and staying late at the office, there can be implied pressure for everyone else to adhere to these norms. This is especially true when the leaders are the ones setting a standard of constant availability and overwork.

While a round-the-clock culture has a myriad of adverse effects, there are cognitive biases that reinforce presenteeism behaviors.

Rewarding Presenteeism

The BBC writes that the “mere exposure effect” forecasts a greater affinity for something or someone you see repeatedly. Essentially, if an employee makes themselves more visible (even if they are not performing adequately) they might be seen and rewarded as harder working or more skilled than a less present employee. This is an often misplaced assumption that does not factor in actual output, but can nonetheless result in compensation increases and promotions.

Other employees might see this and believe that they should also participate in presenteeism to reap this kind of reward. However, this practice favors employees who can work longer hours, pushing working parents, workers experiencing family or relationship issues, employees with multiple jobs, and so forth to the side.

Lack of Direction

When goals and expectations aren’t entirely clear, employees may participate in presenteeism to compensate. It’s understandable that an employee who isn’t exactly sure of what they should work on, how their work is evaluated, or what the purpose of the work is might decide to simply “phone it in” and appear productive or spin their wheels.

The fear here may be that raising the issue of their uncertainty will make them seem incompetent.

Job Insecurity

Similar to the point above, a poorly utilized worker may fear that admitting they don’t have enough work to do or don’t understand their directive can lead to the loss of their job, so appearing busy is necessary.

When employees don’t feel secure in their status, they might also try to work through illness or be as visible as possible in order to seem “vital.” This is a double-edged sword. As an article from the Harvard Business Review put it, “While job insecure workers are motivated to try to perform well, the threat of job loss (and associated stress, frustration, resentment, and exhaustion from taking on extra work or looking for other jobs) makes it harder for them to perform, essentially canceling out any potential benefits.”

Remote worker at a restuarant

Why Is Presenteeism So Prevalent Now?

At this point, it is well-documented that the COVID-19 pandemic took a massive toll on employee health. And though the height of the pandemic is over, there are lingering effects, especially regarding mental health.

According to a global survey conducted by Microsoft, 54% of respondents feel overworked, and 39% feel exhausted. Another study from McKinsey showed that 55% of younger employees (ages 18 - 34)  say that mental health issues impacted their work performance. It’s important to take a close look at presenteeism as a symptom of poor employee health and company cultures.

Addressing the prevalence of presenteeism will improve the wellbeing of our people and the viability of our organizations.

HR Tech to Promote Real Work Value

Distinguishing real productivity from being busy is harder than it sounds, and might require intense systematic review. Luckily there are tools that can aid human resources, workers, and leaders in pinpointing the value of their work. Companies can consider these creative software solutions that help employees be as effective as possible.

  • OKR software provides necessary clarity for employees to align with their organization’s big-picture vision and understand their role in meeting these strategic goals. So even when it is not immediately evident, they can measure their output (the value of their work) against what matters to the company.
  • Project management software smooths out workflows and ensures employees have clear tasks and objectives.
  • Distributed workforces can employ remote team management tools to encourage collaboration and build culture while staying on track with team goals.
  • 360-Degree feedback software enables the valuable flow of information between employees and their organizations, and helps both parties stay organized and on track with expectations.
Meeting with employee and manager about goals

More Solutions to Presenteeism

Practice Empathy

One of the most important steps in reducing presenteeism in an organization is to develop managers who lead with empathy.

Harvard Business Review posts that post-pandemic managers must harness their empathetic skills to be maximally flexible and responsive to their employees’ changing needs. Suppose a manager operates with a compassionate mindset. In that case, they are more likely to create a working environment where employees don’t need to succumb to presenteeism to finish their work or appear productive.

Supervisors who have established empathetic relationships with their employees can also work together to adjust for major life events, such as parenthood, health setbacks, or a family crisis. Employees who believe their managers act fairly can trust their managers with sensitive information, and reasonably expect a modified workload or timeline and flexible work to accommodate them. Creating psychological safety in this way can do wonders for an organization’s culture.

Set Clear Goals

To avoid presenteeism and promote real productivity, managers can set reasonable and realistic goals for their direct reports. They can do this by taking a collaborative approach — working with their reports to determine tasks and deadlines instead of assigning them. The employee can advocate for their time and support needs, as well as their growth interests, and hopefully, avoid an overbearing or disengaging workload. This practice can also eliminate any confusion around expectations and enable the employee to work free of confusion.

Set a Healthy Precedent

Employers can proactively set norms around how to work when you’re not feeling your best by creating a clear sick leave policy.

Leaders need to model the behavior they want employees to have. Thus, senior leaders should set a precedent of staying home or offline when they’re unwell and be as transparent as possible when doing so. Some remote organizations employ a distinct emoji to demonstrate that employees aren’t feeling their best and thus might not be as responsive or present as they usually are. While this is useful, there must also be boundaries around health. If an employee is taking sick leave they should also feel comfortable disconnecting from work completely until they are well.

A company’s people team can also look closely at their healthcare benefits offerings. For example, if your company offers medical insurance, are doctor’s visits affordable — even before an employee meets a deductible? Are enough medical providers within commuting distance of all employees? Do employees have enough paid time off to cover occasional illness, ongoing health issues, personal matters, and recreation?

TL;DR

Presenteeism is an elusive, yet expensive issue that companies face. To encourage their employees to contribute the best work possible, they must take a hard look at their company culture, productivity management, and benefits.

When workers feel adequately supported by leadership, are tasked with an appropriate and clear workload, are able to clearly validate sick leave, and have sufficient resources to care for themselves and their loved ones, they are less likely to exhibit presenteeism behaviors.

What does your organization do to empower employees to take leave when they need it? How does your company inspire and motivate workers? How are you ensuring that employees are able to distinguish long hours from real, valuable productivity? Answering these questions can be the key to avoiding presenteeism.

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Ali Felman

Ali Felman is a Brooklyn-based People Operations professional and freelance writer who is obsessed with employee experience and cultures of growth. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Wesleyan University and spent the first years of her career teaching Middle School Language Arts. When she’s not providing strategic HR support or writing content, she is probably on a run with her dog, Ponyboy, or exploring the city.

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