Presenteeism: Physical Presence Doesn’t Equal Positive Workplace Production

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By Cristina Lavecchia

A national study by Morneau Shepell has indicated that more employees than employers view presenteeism as a serious issue in their workplace.

What is presenteeism?
It is defined as the time employees spend at work while not productively engaged in work.

That is, employees have attended work when they were not able to perform as well as they would have liked or as well as they have performed in the past.

Why are employees not able to perform at 100 per cent?

Physical sickness, depression, stress and issues with their work/workplace or co-workers/managers were cited as the reasons in the Morneau Shepell study.

Why do employees attend work, when they are not well?
An employee may feel easily replaceable, or that no one else is able to perform their job and therefore they do not want to let their team nor employer down.

In the news: It was reported earlier this year that too many health care workers attend work when sick, and therefore risk spreading infections to their patients. This news report was in response to a new study that was published in an online issue of JAMA Pediatrics.

An anonymous survey administered in a large children’s hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, showed that approximately 95 per cent of attending physicians and advanced practice clinicians, including certified registered nurse practitioners, physician assistants, clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists and certified nurse midwives, who responded to the survey believed that working while sick puts patients at risk. The survey also showed that approximately 83 per cent of those health care workers attended work while sick at least once in the past year.

The study revealed that the following are the reasons deemed important in deciding when to attend work while sick:

  • not wanting to let colleagues down;
  • staffing concerns;
  • not wanting to let patients down;
  • fear of ostracism by colleagues;
  • concern about continuity of care;
  • extreme difficulty finding coverage;
  • a strong cultural norm to come to work unless remarkably ill; and
  • ambiguity about what constitutes “too sick to work.”

In the news report, Gary Johns, a management professor at the John Molson School Business at Concordia University in Montreal expressed that people are more inclined to go to work ill or exhibit presenteeism in team oriented, demanding jobs. In his exploration of presenteeism, he has noticed that employees were less likely to be inclined to feel pressure to attend work when ill when there was adequate staffing.

What are the related costs?
According to a study commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the total cost to the Canadian economy from mental health problems and illnesses is significant. The economic cost to Canada is at least $50 billion a year.

The MHCC study also revealed that more than 6.7 million people in Canada are living with a mental illness. In workplaces and among working aged people (20-64 years of age) the impact of mental health problems and illnesses is especially felt. Around 21.4 per cent of the working age population in Canada was living with a mental health problem or illness in 2011.

According to the MHCC study, mental health problems and illnesses account for approximately 30% of short and long term disability claims and are “rated one of the top three drivers of such claims by more than 80% of Canadian employers.”

In 2011 alone, the MHCC study found that presenteeism, absenteeism and turnover cost businesses more than $6 billion in lost productivity.

Researchers of the Morneau Shepell study approximate that the true cost of presenteeism to an organization is greater than that of absenteeism.

Is it a recognized issue?
According to the Morneau Shepell study, employees are more likely to see presenteeism as a serious issue than absenteeism, while employers are more likely to see the opposite. This may be due to employees being closer to the experience and impact of presenteeism.

Also, the Morneau Shepell study found that in addition to non-illness related absence (i.e., personal issue, practical issue or choice that is not related to illness), a lack of organizational support for mental wellness was found to predict presenteeism.

What can be done?
According to the MHCC, “improved management of mental health in the workplace including prevention, early action to combat stress and identify problems could decrease losses to productivity significantly.”

The Morneau Shepell study suggests:

  • using employee questionnaires to collect data in order to determine the specific causes of workplace stress for employees;
  • putting into effect actions that support workplace mental health and wellness; as well as considering:
  • implementing an employee wellness committee;
  • arranging regular seminars and other learning events; and
  • ensuring that managers are trained to actively recognize when an employee`s work behaviour changes. When presenteesim becomes an issue, knowing how to appropriately step in with a problem-solving focus is key.

Cristina Lavecchia is editor at HRinfodesk, published by First Reference.

Originally published in HRinfodesk November 2015.

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