Presenteeism refers to the practice of being present at work but not being productive. The culture of presenteeism is widespread; however, it is more of an issue in some countries than others. For example, in the UK, presenteeism has hit record high levels. The number of employees coming into work while sick has more than tripled since 2010.
The Culture of Presenteeism
This rapid surge in presenteeism highlights that people in the UK feel under more pressure than ever to go into work – and stay at work for longer – even if they’re ill. People feel expected to work longer hours than they’re required to, and this has been linked to worries about job security. No one wants to be seen slacking while everyone else is putting the hours in. If there’s a culture of presenteeism, then it becomes incredibly difficult to break away from the mold and take time off when you need (and deserve) it.
If you see an employee with an awful cold coming into work anyway and powering through the week, then you might feel expected to do the same. After all, you don’t want your line manager to think you’re lazy or apathetic about your career. The problem, though, is that if you’re going into work while ill – be that a physical or mental health issue – you’ll put in the hours, but you may not actually get much work done.
How the Culture of Presenteeism Impacts Employees
The culture of presenteeism seriously impacts both the physical and mental health of employees. When you’re ill, you need to recuperate. You’re not doing yourself any favors if you’re sitting at your desk sniffling and desperately trying to focus on your tasks with a splitting headache. Plus, you may also pass on your nasty cold to a fellow employee.
Presenteeism makes illnesses last longer than they need to. And truth be told; it’s just a miserable experience to work while ill. Rising rates of presenteeism are associated with increases in stress, anxiety, and depression. The fact that we still don’t place physical health on an equal footing with mental health means that people are much less likely to see the validity of taking time off due to poor mental health. Conditions such as anxiety and depression, much like the flu, can make it incredibly difficult to concentrate and be productive.
Businesses suffer too
It would be understandable – although still disturbing – if presenteeism affected employees but not businesses. If companies were benefiting from presenteeism, at least that could provide some rationale to the phenomenon. However, they’re not. It is estimated that presenteeism costs employers £15.1bn a year – and that’s just in terms of mental health issues. When you factor in the losses to productivity due to people coming into work with a cold, flu or other health condition, then the cost is obviously much greater.
The culture of presenteeism is also associated with lower staff morale, more employee errors, and higher turnover rates, which is certainly not in any business’ interests.
Changing the culture of presenteeism requires action from both employees and businesses. If you’re sick and you know that you really need to rest, then use your allotted sick days. You’re entitled to them. And they exist for a reason. Meanwhile, employers should take steps to discourage presenteeism. Communicating openly with employees is critical here. Employees should feel they can be trusted to take time off when they’re unwell. This expectation to suffer in silence at work is helping no one. It’s time for businesses to take a progressive approach and make employee well-being a top priority.