Are Your Employee Absence Management Policies Encouraging Presenteeism?

A sick man spends the day at home.

Presenteeism cost one employer more than $30 million in lost productivity.

Absenteeism. In some industries, it can override many others in importance due to the impact on the business and overall service delivery. When workers have unscheduled time off, it can negatively affect a range of areas from customer service to safety.

Another related area of employee absence management that isn't considered as often is presenteeism. Presenteeism occurs when employees come to the workplace in spite of being sick, and while it might not sound like a major issue, it can be just as harmful to the business as rampant absenteeism.

The Negative Effects of Presenteeism

Corporate Wellness Magazine recently published a story highlighting a research study of presenteeism. Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston studied productivity of workers at a large aerospace firm, and it found that employees who attend work while ill cost the employer approximately $34 million.

But where does that impact come from? Think about your own workplace:

  • When someone comes to work sick, are they performing at their best?
  • Are they bringing their most productive self to work?
  • Are they able to focus as intently as they do when they are well?

If we're being honest, we know the answer to these questions is a resounding "no."

Another study referenced by EHSToday estimates presenteeism costs about 10 times as much as absenteeism. The study found employees average about four sick days per year but admit to working unproductively nearly 60 days a year.

The most common side effect of coming to work while ill is the high probability of spreading germs to others. Consider the compound effect of this trend if one person makes two people sick, those two make four sick, and so on. While some of the workers may stay home to recover, a culture or environment that encourages people to work despite being ill is likely to see this kind of problem spread far and wide.

Policies that Encourage Presenteeism

Most business leaders don't think about it this way, but some of our employee absence management policies actually encourage presenteeism. In an interview on the We're Only Human podcast with Jill Kopanis, VP of Human Resources at Dynamic Dies, she used the common example of employers requiring a doctor's notice for someone taking a sick day when they have the common cold.

Realistically, the common cold does not come and go within 24, 48, or even 72 hours, and there is absolutely nothing a doctor can do to make the virus run its course more quickly. Yet employees are expected to visit the doctor and get an excuse, exposing them to other germs and illnesses just in time for them to return to the workplace. Kopanis has seen, in many cases, workers will just skip the hassle of taking a day off and come in to work to avoid the trouble.

To attack this rampant issue, employers should think through a few critical points:

  • Leaders need to set the example by coming to work well and productive, not when they're under the weather.
  • Help employees understand the guidelines for when it's okay to come to work and when they should stay home.
  • Disciplinary action should be the last resort, not an early step in the process, to avoid triggering unwanted employee behaviors such as coming to work ill.

Employers should consider more broadly how they design their policies and approaches to absenteeism. While it is certainly something to be monitored and evaluated, having a standard policy or even a culture that encourages workers to visit the workplace while ill drives up the chances of it affecting others in a negative way.