How to Avoid Presenteeism at Work in your Business

Do you really know what presenteeism at work is all about? Here's how to avoid it within your company!

Work environment

Anne-Marie Battista

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Presenteeism means being present at work, but doing personal and irrelevant tasks, right? Wrong!

Contrary to Quebec’s popular belief, presenteeism does not mean wasting time at work – which should be referred to, in that case, as demobilization or lack of employee engagement. So, if presenteeism at work is not what you thought it was, what is it?

Far from the definition of demobilization, presenteeism means showing up to work, despite a physical or psychological state that would initially require an absence, and/or some rest at home.

For there to be presenteeism, there must be some sort of weakened health state; whether from the occasional lack of sleep caused by a child being sick overnight, a bad cold, a physical injury, an illness, or to another extreme, psychological distress.

Presenteeism at work – not necessarily the boss’ fault!

Presenteeism is not necessarily a reaction to an oppressive employer or work conditions. An employee might show up despite his/her bad shape for many personal reasons: to show professionalism, for career progression, fear of falling behind on their tasks, or so that they does not let a colleague or a client down.

It might also have to do with financial reasons, such as unpaid sick days, or to avoid EI (employment insurance). Whatever the reason, it is important to stop presenteeism at work within your company.

A lose-lose solution

If a sick employee decides to show up at work despite their state to avoid the costs associated with a day off, that’s about all they will avoid. In fact, not only does presenteeism not contribute to your organization’s performance, but it also harms it!

A “weakened” employee, psychologically or physically, will not be able to utilize their full potential and skills. Their overall performance will inevitably be lower than usual.

But beyond the lack of performance, presenteeism at work represents a risk for the employee, his/her colleagues and the organization – particularly among staff members with technical jobs that requires alertness and physical agility.

Be proactive – Prevent!

Managers are your best allies in preventing presenteeism. Familiar with their employees, they are able to detect warning signs among their team members: lower work quality, increasing number of errors, drawn facial features, or a change in their behavior (susceptibility, withdrawal, anger or discouragement, among other things).

As an employer, support your managers and provide them with tools such as coaching and training, which will raise awareness of the presenteeism phenomenon. Introduce measures that will allow managers to assign tasks fairly and that will also allow them to understand the verbal and non-verbal language of their employees.

Also, make sure you demystify presenteeism among all employees by establishing a strict policy about it. Be sure to clearly state it in the employee guide, and promote occupational health: at work, we have to be in top condition, so unfortunately, if a disease sets in, we need to take time to heal.

Presenteeism at work is here… what to do?

Take action, where possible

First, make sure to offer a positive work environment, in which work AND health are appropriately valued. On the other hand, allow good communication between employees and managers; because before taking any action, the intervention needed in the case of an employee showing signs of presenteeism begins with a good discussion.

If as a result of this discussion, you and the employee agree that the actual work is the cause of his/her condition, take the bull by the horns and help improve the situation! You can adjust some of his/her duties or work schedule. You guessed it: this approach requires delicacy and good thinking – you must, at the same time, avoid interfering with other employees while helping the employee who is suffering.

On the other hand, if an employee’s presenteeism problem is a consequence of their health, recommend he/she gets the proper care. For example, you could release the employee during a shift to allow for a medical visit or preventive rest. This will prevent the employee’s health from further deterioration, thereby increasing the speed of recovery and return to work. Moreover, in the case of a virus, you will be glad you limited the risk of contamination to other colleagues!

Employees who are committed… to heal!

It is imperative to involve the employee suffering from presenteeism at work in your speech, because after all, you are all part of the solution.

Make sure the employee realizes that the solution is within reach, and is committed to seek help with the resources available. You will then be able to support him/her by ensuring follow-ups and giving positive feedback on the changes resulting from the intervention.

A shared responsibility

It might seem natural and appropriate that a sick employee be absent, and perhaps you already have a very flexible internal policy for that matter. But what happens when it is the employee who refuses to be absent? Prescribe a preventive leave, for as long as it takes to get better. The employee will then truly have the opportunity to rest or seek the care he/she needs.

Your employees, on their part, need to understand the importance of being healthy and coming to work in optimal conditions. It is their responsibility to be fit for work and to do everything in their power to remain so, for example, through available vaccines, compliance with preventive measures and effective communication with their manager.

Stop – put the phone and the laptop away!

When an employee needs rest or health care, they must dedicate the time and energy required to get better. Avoid any type of work during a preventive leave. Telecommuting (working from home) or reading emails remotely are harmful forms of work that will hinder the full recovery of the employee.

Insist that the employee avoids working remotely, and encourage colleagues not to send professional emails while he/she is away. Ultimately, you could block their remote access or emails, while still encouraging communication between the two of you, and explain the importance of the preventive leave.

Presenteeism is a phenomenon that involves the incapacity to work, and which nobody is safe from. For various reasons, an employee may decide to report for work despite a medical condition that should not allow them to. This condition can affect people at all levels of the company: even your senior management colleagues … or even you!

The uncertainties of life are unfortunately inevitable, but there are ways to be prepared and react appropriately, should they arise. To avoid presenteeism within your company: train, coach, prevent and take action!

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