6 Signs of presenteeism in the workplace

Guest Author 18.04.2024

Presenteeism in the workplace is a significant employment challenge that has existed for a long time. Despite the pandemic’s invitation to reassess our work-life balance and improve our well-being, evidence suggests that presenteeism is far from a relic relegated to the inflexible past. 

In fact, according to a report published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 65% of HR professionals reported witnessing presenteeism in their workplace, while 81% identified the phenomenon in employees who primarily work from home.

Those are high percentages, caused by an all-too-common and all-too-easily-adopted attitude that being present at your desk – even when you are unwell – is often valued far higher than tangible productivity itself. It is, therefore, no wonder that employers lose an estimated 35 days per employee to presenteeism every year.

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Put simply, presenteeism in the workplace poses a significant headache for employers who may be under pressure to bolster profits in a climate of economic turbulence. At the heart of the problem is an unwillingness or an inability to take sick leave and holiday, extending mental and physical health problems or even causing total burnout and a cessation of output altogether.

Employers everywhere are keen to find a solution, such as publishing a clear absence policy within their employee handbook or implementing flexible working options. 

But first, they must spot the signs of presenteeism. Some are subtle, whereas others are far easier to catch. In this blog post, we’ll highlight six of the most common forms of presenteeism in the workplace. Ready? 

What is presenteeism in the workplace?

But first things first – let’s define exactly what presenteeism in the workplace is. 

Presenteeism is the concept whereby an employee is physically present at their place of work but does not fulfill their duties with the expected level of effort, due diligence, concentration, or care. 

Presenteeism in the workplace can manifest in many ways, such as reduced attention to detail, distractedness, low morale, and an absence of enthusiasm, and its consequences can be significant.

For example, in an office environment, mistakes within a database or on a website can be financially and even reputationally damaging. On a building site or factory floor – where there are ever-present hazards – the outcome can be outright dangerous.

Six signs of presenteeism in the workplace

The causes of presenteeism are as varied as they are numerous, but the most common include physical illness or injury and mental health problems that have gone undiagnosed or untreated.

It would be easy to blame the employees for their lack of care and attention at work, but in doing so, you would fail to take into account the fact that it is often not something in their control. That is why spotting the signs of presenteeism in the workplace is so important.

So, what signs should you be aware of?

1. Frequent or long periods of illness

Illnesses come and go – often arriving at inconvenient times like on your birthday or just before a three-day weekend – but an employee who is unwell more frequently or for longer periods than their colleagues might be experiencing presenteeism. This can be caused by worries over job security or the fear of falling behind, but by coming into work when they are unwell, the employee is not only impacting their own productivity but that of the wider team, too, because they risk spreading the illness around the workplace.

It should go without saying that if you have a genuine concern about the frequency or longevity of an employee’s illness, you should address it with them directly and privately, recognizing that any subject relating to physical or mental health can be sensitive and should therefore, be approached compassionately.

2. High levels of stress

Approximately 79% of adults in the UK reported feeling stressed at least once per month. Of those survey respondents, the overwhelming majority cited the workplace as the most common cause of their stress, encompassing things like a particularly heavy workload, unclear expectations, a lack of support, and conflict with a colleague. If you have experienced stress recently, you will know just how distracting it can be, encouraging you to focus on nothing else but the cause of your mental anguish.

If your employees are experiencing high levels of stress, their productivity or the quality of their work is likely to suffer as a result. Being aware of the symptoms of stress, such as quietness and irritability, allows you to prevent stress from building up and taking over. 

Initiatives that you can put into place might include things like stress management workshops, open dialogue to discuss project resourcing, mediation when colleagues have had a disagreement, and clear written communication that leaves nobody in doubt over what is expected of them in reference to a particular task.

3. Decreased productivity

According to the New York Times, approximately eight in 10 of the US’s biggest private employers track productivity. As a result, it should be fairly easy to spot when an employee’s output dips without an obvious reason (such as being out of the office on annual leave, for example). 

If you implement clear and regular communication between an employee and a manager, productivity drops can be addressed early enough not to cause a significant problem, and presenteeism in the workplace can be prevented.

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4. Increased errors

A lack of training and guidance might cause errors in the workplace, but they are more often the result of a lapse in concentration or an impairment of attention to detail. Whereas reduced output might slow things down and frustrate the employee’s colleagues, an increase in errors can cause reputational or financial damage and even physical injury. 

If you begin to notice mistakes creeping into the employee’s work, you should try to understand whether there are any underlying causes possibly linked to presenteeism in the workplace. 

For example, an employee might be making many errors because they have an unmanageably high workload, and they feel pressure to get through it as quickly as possible. Following your conversation with the employee, a possible solution might be to share the burden across several employees or explain that the work should be completed with quality in mind rather than speed.

5. A reluctance to take a holiday

Regularly taking holidays is one of the best ways for your employees to recharge, relax, and feel refreshed in preparation for the projects ahead. Despite that fact, it is estimated that a staggering 60% of employees don’t use their full annual leave entitlement, often letting the spare days go to waste. While many of these wasted days are due to forgetfulness, many go unused due to reluctance. 

Perhaps your employee with an excess number of spare holiday days does not want to fall behind at work. As a result, they don’t take the valuable breaks that can rest both the mind and body and, counter-intuitively, produce sub-quality work and fall further behind. In these situations, it is the responsibility of the employee’s line manager to encourage the regular taking of annual leave in order to promote well-being and boost productivity.

6. A lack of engagement in meetings

If your employee fails to participate in meetings actively or seems to do so reluctantly, it can be a sign that they are experiencing presenteeism. 

Perhaps their minds are occupied with an overwhelming workload or instructions that they are yet to decipher. Whatever the case, they are unlikely to absorb the valuable information, updates, and opportunities for collaboration necessary to do their job well. 

While a one-off lapse of attention might be caused by a late night or an extra-curricular distraction, presenteeism could be responsible if it happens on a regular basis, hindering performance and impacting productivity.

Keep an eye out

Presenteeism in the workplace is a complex phenomenon that can have genuine implications for the productivity, the well-being of your employees, and the success of your organization. By spotting and understanding the signs of presenteeism, you can take proactive steps to address it, creating a healthier, more supportive work environment in which your employees feel valued and empowered to prioritize their health and well-being  – safe in the knowledge that doing so will make them more productive. 

This is a guest post by Pam Loch. Pam set up Loch Associates Group in 2007 to respond to the need for commercial and bespoke legal and people solutions for clients. She has continued to evolve the business to respond to client needs and is now proud to have services offering solutions in all elements of HR services, employment, and business law.

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