About the author:  Emma Wynne
With experience in both the public and private sector and an MA in HRM, Emma Wynne’s knowledge and ability to take action is formidable.  In addition to her role as Managing Director of Gateway HR, Emma has lectured in HR for both the University of Northampton and the CIPD at Masters Degree level for 8 years. Nothing gives her more pleasure than observing her students’ progress with some reaching the dizzy heights of HR Directors at large organisations. Emma remains in contact with many of her former students and some of them are now Gateway HR clients and even staff! Emma is also a very engaging event speaker and has presented at the National CIPD conference in Manchester.


The Problem With Presenteeism

As an HR Professional, in nearly every organisation I have worked, the topic of absenteeism and what to do about it is one that is often discussed and worked on. Many practices have absence levels as one of their key measurements as it has a direct effect on the bottom line.

There is however, an ever increasing threat that can slow down work, reduce productivity and sap employee energy. This new threat is presenteeism. The aim of this article is to look at what it is, how it affects productivity and how to tackle it.

1. What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism can be defined as the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury or other distress, often resulting in reduced productivity or a loss of workplace productivity resulting from employee health problems and/or personal issues. Even though the employee is physically present at work, because they are experiencing problems (which can be many and varied, including, allergies, stress, family problems etc.) they are unable to fully perform their duties and are more likely to make mistakes in the work they do perform. And in this industry, missing something crucial can have a devastating effect.

In a 2004 study of the problem, the Harvard Business Review noted that presenteeism is not to be confused with malingering (pretending to be ill to avoid work) or just deliberately putting off duties at work, and should be considered a particular condition of being unable to perform at the highest level due to real physical or mental health challenges.

Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism is more difficult to identify, and also has potentially hard-to-track, far reaching consequences for your practice.

2. What are the negative impacts of presenteeism

Some studies have shown that the cost of presenteeism can as high as 7.5 times that of absenteeism, and in the cases of employees with some stress related issues (high blood pressure, migraines, heart disease etc.) as much as 15 times greater. Yet, unlike in the case of absenteeism, these losses are much harder to identify because it’s impossible to tell with a glance which employees are doing a high quality job and solving problems, and which ones are muddling through in the face of physical or mental problems that prevent them from working at their full capacity.

3. So what can you do about it?

Presenteeism is harder to see than absenteeism and therefore harder to tackle, but as we’ve also seen, if you do tackle it, it can give any practice a clear competitive advantage.

Research has shown that targeted wellbeing investments can pay off, especially those covering areas like neck pain, back pain, fatigue and slight depression, which are among those with high presenteeism levels.

Look at ways people can work from home or can work flexibly and create a culture where people are encouraged to look after themselves and others and not be afraid of being honest if they are not up to coming into work and don’t feel pressurised to coming in when they don’t feel well. Include stress management and mental health programmes in any wellness programmes as this can help prevent presenteeism in a pro-active and cost effective way.

4. Stop presenteeism before it starts

This is really down to the culture and the behaviours of managers and employees. Any practice serious about preventing presenteeism needs to look at themselves and examine the culture and structures which unintentionally may be contributing to it. Managers must provide assistance to employees to help them make healthier choices for themselves for the good of everyone at the office.

If you would like any help or ideas on how you can help to reduce presenteeism in your practice, give Gateway HR a call on 01536 215240.  Further information and contact details can be found at Gateway HR’s fantastic new website: