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Sharmila Ganapathy 6 min read

How is Your Business Impacted When Your Employees Show Up But Aren’t Quite There?

Presenteeism – What employers can do when employees show up to work but don’t perform at their best due to medical or psychological conditions.

What would you do if you have an employee who shows up at work every day, but gets little to nothing done and looks visibly distraught or stressed? Can you recognise that something may be wrong with him or her, thus affecting engagement and productivity levels? And if yes, what do you do about it?

There’s a term for being physically present at work, but being unable to work productively or happily. And it is called ‘presenteeism’, a phenomenon that has been particularly chronic since Covid-19, which has led to job losses, isolation, and overall poorer well-being for many people in the workplace.


A costly problem

However, presenteeism is not new and also costs companies a lot in terms of money and productivity.

An American Productivity Audit estimates that decreased productivity due to presenteeism costs the US economy more than USD 150 billion annually. In Japan, that estimate is USD 3,055 per employee each year, according to research.

Researchers from Japan found that the monetary value due to absenteeism was USD 520 per person per year (11 per cent), presenteeism was USD 3055 (64 per cent), and medical/pharmaceutical expenses totalled USD 1165 (25 per cent).

In the United Kingdom, Britain’s Healthiest Workplace Survey 2019 found that days of productivity lost per employee per year were three days due to absenteeism and 35 days due to presenteeism. The AIA Vitality Healthiest Workplace Survey 2019 was also cited in the above survey. Every year, the AIA survey covers the health and well-being of more than 26,000 employees in the Asia Pacific region.

AIA’s research showed that employees in this region work significantly longer hours than their counterparts in the UK and Australia but are far less productive, take considerably more time off work because of sickness and have higher presenteeism scores. In Hong Kong, with the worst outcomes across the six surveyed countries and territories, almost 46 per cent of employees worked more than 50 hours per week. However, the survey found that the average amount of productive time lost per year in Hong Kong amounted to 77.4 days.

Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality Survey 2019 found that Malaysia lost 73.3 working days per employee per year to absence and presenteeism in 2019 compared to the other markets surveyed.

“The average cost of health-related absence and presenteeism per organisation in Malaysia is estimated to be RM1.46 million per month. Malaysians appear to be less engaged in their work in 2019 — 16% reported low engagement compared to 14% last year.

“Approximately half of those surveyed reported at least one aspect of work-related stress, a result that was fairly standard across the markets surveyed, while 20% of Malaysian employees reported bullying in their workplace,” the survey highlighted.


What influences presenteeism

The data clearly shows that something is very wrong in today’s workplace. But what factors cause and influence presenteeism? A study was conducted between November 2012 and June 2013 on 405 employees at a private financial institution in Lisbon, Portugal.

The researchers found that job satisfaction directly impacts absolute presenteeism, meaning that presenteeism is low if there is high job satisfaction. Interestingly, resources and communication (where adequate resources and good communication are relevant for workers) do not directly impact absolute presenteeism; their effect was mediated by psychological well-being.

“Work-life balance (a potential spillover or interference between work and individual or family life) and aspects of your job (potential sources of stress related to the nature of the job) have a positive and negative direct effect on presenteeism respectively, decreased by the presence of the mediated variable PWB [psychological well-being],” the researchers posited.

The Lisbon study researchers also urged employers to employ mental health promotion interventions to improve employee well-being. “To promote a sustainable programme, addressing physical and mental health, lifestyle, and job engagement is crucial. Additionally, productivity losses could fall by 30% with the implementation of workplace mental health promotion initiatives to overcome undue stress and poor mental health,” they advised.


The rise of sickness presenteeism

There is growing evidence that sickness presenteeism is far more costly than absenteeism, according to the Journal of Occupational Medicine. Yet some employees continue working despite being unwell due to the fear of job loss.

“Job insecurity is increasing rapidly in an uncertain job market where unemployment rates are expected to rise substantially. Such conditions can also encourage employees to work during illness to show their value, loyalty and commitment to their organization and avoid job loss. People with a poor sick record due to chronic health problems might be particularly likely to work while sick during the pandemic, especially as some organizations use sickness absence records to select staff for redundancy.”

According to the same source, several organisational factors promote presenteeism, including workplace cultures that stigmatise sick leave and normalise long working hours. Presenteeism also occurs more frequently in jobs with high workload pressure, which has increased in many organisations since the advent of Covid-19.

In addition, many organisations are short-staffed, increasing workloads and working hours, compounded by the need to cover for sick or vulnerable colleagues.

“Greater flexibility is also required during the pandemic, as staff may need to learn new skills rapidly and extend their availability to make the organization more competitive. All of these factors will increase the risk of presenteeism among workers and generate feelings of pressure and stress that can increase the likelihood of future health problems,” the article said.

Moreover, the article highlighted that the risk of Covid-19 in health and social care is higher, with staff covering or shielding colleagues. Presenteeism is also prevalent in the gig economy, which often pays low and lacks medical benefits.


Addressing the elephant in the room

The question is, knowing now what you know as an employer, what can you do to reduce presenteeism in your workplace? The data shows that presenteeism can be measured. Therefore, quantifiable improvements are also possible.

There are a few measures you can take to mitigate, if not eliminate, the presenteeism problem:

1. Design a wellness programme for all employees

To ensure that all employees benefit from greater psychological and physical well-being, employers must design and roll out wellness programmes that are as personalised as possible to individual employee needs. While personalisation may not be feasible for large organisations of 500 employees and more, employers need to have wellness programmes anyway. The alternative is to allow post-pandemic after-effects and other factors to continue to linger and influence presenteeism. Ultimately, this will cost employers money in lost time on the job, as well as productivity, so you want to avoid doing this.

2. Provide employees with access to mental health services

To ensure the successful rollout of employee wellness programmes, access to mental health services must be included. The pandemic has increased mental health issues in the global workforce, and employers need to be aware of this. Empowering employees by giving them access to mental health services that they would not otherwise be able to afford can go a long way towards creating a happy and productive workforce.

3. Create a culture that is inclusive and pro-employee

Sadly, in this part of the world, many employers still equate working longer hours to being more productive and expect this from all their employees. This even happens when employees are sick. However, this will only exacerbate presenteeism in the workplace. Employers need to prioritise their employees’ well-being and create a pro-employee and inclusive culture so that everyone gets treated equally and has their best interests at heart.

While the onus is on employers to take care of their employees, employees need to speak up and take ownership of their well-being, contributing to their presenteeism. Only when employees prioritise their well-being and value themselves, will employers feel the urgency to do so.