Workplace absence rates are usually straightforward for employers to measure, but sometimes an employee can be present at work yet struggling to perform at their best.
Employees are most likely to take days off due to minor illness, musculoskeletal issues, mental ill health and stress. But these are just the issues you can see. Employers must also consider the consequences of presenteeism — a hidden threat which can have a big impact on employee wellbeing and productivity across the business.
What is presenteeism?
Presenteeism is when employees are at work in body, but not in mind. This could be due to a physical or mental health issue, or it could be that they’re simply not motivated or engaged.
The practice of coming to work despite illness, injury or mental health problems, often resulting in reduced productivity.
Even though the employee is physically at work, they are likely to underperform and may make more mistakes than usual.
It’s estimated that presenteeism costs businesses around £27bn each year, yet many workplace cultures continue to reward an ‘always on’ approach, causing employees to prioritise visibility at work over their long-term health.
What causes presenteeism?
Lots of factors can increase presenteeism in the workplace. The widespread adoption of flexible and remote working has been a double-edged sword for our work-life balance. While many find it easier to manage their responsibilities on their own schedule, others may struggle to switch off at the end of the day, leading to burnout.
With an ageing workforce, many employees now find themselves in the ‘sandwich generation’ with caring responsibilities for elderly relatives as well as children, leaving them unable to juggle their mental load and properly separate their work and home lives.
Although employees may appreciate the positive aspects of flexible and remote working, it also makes it harder for managers to spot those struggling with presenteeism and offer support.
The ‘always on’ culture fostered by advances in technology is contributing to another new phenomenon – ‘leavism’. This is where employees find themselves working additional hours in the early morning before work, during the evenings, when they’re off work unwell or even whilst on holiday.
Signs of presenteeism can include:
- Making more mistakes than usual
- Issues with performance or quality of work
- A sense of apathy, especially about results
- Arriving late or leaving early
- Conversely, missing lunch breaks or appearing to work long hours
- Working whilst sick
- Looking more tired than usual
- Regularly avoiding webcam calls
Presenteeism and mental health
While presenteeism can occur for many reasons, there’s often a link to mental health. Almost half (44%) of people say their mental health affects their productivity at least once a week, suggesting that employees may be physically present during the working day, but struggling to perform at their best.
In 2021, 31% of employees took time off due to their mental health, with organisations across the UK seeing an average of 3.36 mental health days off per employee, at a cost of £12.7bn over the course of the year.
While these absences paint a troubling picture, the true cost is not immediately visible to leadership teams. Days lost to mental health are not confined to a 24-hour period of absence. Employees are likely to struggle with their mental wellbeing for some time before things get ‘bad enough’ to take a day off, resulting in a significant period of presenteeism which may go unseen by managers.
How can managers spot the signs of presenteeism and take action?
Line managers are usually the closest contact for their direct reports. They’re on the front line of the business and play a key role in addressing presenteeism and spotting employees who need support.
To make a positive impact, managers need to understand the importance of health and wellbeing and foster a healthy working environment for their people. Training is essential to help managers spot the first signs of potential mental health issues, including presenteeism. Wellbeing workshops or webinars can help get everyone up to speed in a supportive group setting.
Line managers also need to feel confident to approach and support employees on sensitive issues, helping their people feel comfortable discussing their problems before they become overwhelmed. Mental Health First Aid training is a great first step to help managers develop these skills and embed wellbeing culture throughout your organisation.