Businesses need to help reduce presenteeism


Employee “presenteeism” is a complex concept involving the loss of personal productivity resulting from health-related issues.  In other words, an employee’s mental or physical attention is partially or completely diverted from their work, resulting in less than full concentration on the task at hand and requiring more time to complete assigned projects and fulfill other responsibilities.

Lost productivity due to presenteeism and its consequences can represent a significant hidden cost to employers, and it’s important for businesses to recognise the importance of developing programs that could effectively reduce presenteeism in the workplace. When integrated with other workplace health and safety programs, such programs can dramatically improve the overall economic performance of an organisation while also contributing to the health and well-being of employees.

Survey data from 39,000 UK workers presented by leading business psychology company, Robertson Cooper, showed that a quarter of the people in the sample have recently struggled to make it into work just to show their bosses they are present, despite feeling ill. Although workplaces are safer and healthier than ever, thanks to improved workplace safety practices, employer-sponsored healthcare insurance and wellness programs, less attention is being paid to the issue of employee presenteeism.

Certain chronic physical or mental health ailments – a such as allergies, back or neck pain, hypertension, obesity and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – routinely keep employees from giving their full attention at work. Other prevalent presenteeism conditions include arthritis, asthma, migraine headaches, fatigue and depression. Often, the causes of presenteeism are deceptively similar to common health ailments occasionally experienced by many otherwise healthy employees. And, unlike absenteeism linked to acute illness or hospitalization, employee presenteeism is often harder to detect since affected employees still show up to perform their assigned responsibilities.

For employers, the consequences of employee presenteeism are significant. Perhaps most important, presenteeism has a direct impact on overall productivity levels and comes at a serious cost to businesses.

According to the Sainsbury Centre, presenteeism accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism, and costs more to employees as it is more common among higher-paid staff. Presenteeism is estimated to cost up to £15.1 billion a year in reduced productivity at work.

Additionally, a recent study by UBS placed London’s average working week at33 and a half hours in a global context – more than cities such as Paris, Milan and Copenhagen. The study showed that younger people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to being pressured by their colleagues and bosses into working longer hours, and into not admitting when they’re ill.

Beyond the tangible costs, employee presenteeism impacts employers in other ways. Employees who are distracted at work by underlying health conditions are more likely to make mistakes or errors in judgement. Depending on the degree of severity, employees affected by presenteeism are likely to be less productive than other employees with comparable responsibilities. This can result in less favorable performance evaluations, reduced compensation levels and fewer promotional opportunities. Even among highly-committed employees, job disengagement and dissatisfaction are likely to increase.

Traditionally, companies have addressed the issues of workplace health and safety by creating separate and independent departments, with specialised professionals, which is definitely a positive move in the right direction. For example, corporate level workplace safety programs have been developed and monitored by professionals trained in safety engineering and industrial hygiene, while employee benefit including healthcare insurance and wellness programs have been administered by human resource professionals.

Paying attention to your employees’ physical and mental wellbeing may seem like a big undertaking for corporations with a large workforce, but ultimately, taking the time to notice the little things will have a huge impact on productivity, profitability and the overall success of a business.

Mark Ward, General Manager at UL EHS Sustainability.