Is Your Organization Suffering From Presenteeism?

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

It is hard to solve a problem you don’t know you have. Presenteeism has become a growing problem in organizations, more costly to employers than absenteeism, and yet many don’t know what it is, if it exists, and thus what to do about it.

Presenteeism refers to those employees that are physically or emotionally unwell but continue to work instead of taking vacation, personal or unpaid days. Working when unwell equates to lost productivity and a perpetuating cycle of ongoing illness. It can also impact the productivity of others, especially if the illness is acute and spreads throughout the department or organization. Employees suffering from presenteeism may work more slowly than usual, make more mistakes, misuse equipment, are more prone to work-related accidents, can have lapses in judgement, and have more interpersonal problems and conflict with others (1). Clearly, there is a strong link between presenteeism and absenteeism, but the problems people are facing at home, work, or with their health, are not often identified or managed until there is a (often prolonged) work absence. Proactive solutions are the key to stopping a growing problem.

A recent study by Statistics Canada found that lost productivity from presenteeism was at least 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism. Statistics Canada also estimates that 7.5 days per employee per year are lost due to presenteeism, which equates to 3% of salary costs. Therefore, it is estimated that presenteeism costs Canadian businesses 15 to 25 billion dollars per year (2).

While understanding the incidence of presenteeism might prove difficult if people arrive to work, their activities are not monitored, and they don’t disclose an illness, there are ways to analyze if this is happening at your workplace. Several screening tools and questionnaires exist that can help employers understand how this could be impacting them. It is suggested that employers rely on the services of an external consultant to obtain this data, otherwise employees may not report problems accurately.

In addition to gathering information about the problem, there are known ways to reduce this. Flexible work hours and choices (such as lieu time), work-from-home options, and Personal Assistant programs are known to provide direct benefit (1).

Occupational Therapy is another solution. Often, Occupational Therapists are retained by employers to assess and treat workplace productivity problems. In fact, we are great at this. One of our many strategies for intervention includes the set-up of Workplace Health Programs (WHP) to target both absenteeism and presenteeism. According to the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (2012), such programs that include organizational leadership, health risk screening, individual (versus group) tailored programs, and those that create a supportive workplace culture are especially effective. When employee supervisors and managers are involved and educated on mental health, organization and environmental factors that influence behavior are targeted, and when exercise is promoted during work hours, the resulting reductions in presenteeism are statistically significant (3).

As the world gets more hectic, stress increases, and demands surpass ability, employers need to dial in and analyze, track and measure the wellness of their workforce. Presenteeism is going to be another silent killer – of productivity, bottom lines, and wellness. Consider Occupational Therapy to get to the root of this problem. We do that.

(3) Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (2012) 59, 247-250.

Check out more of our posts on ways to create a healthier workplace.