Take steps to prevent presenteeism

Veronica Daehn Harvey

Just because employees make it to work, it doesn’t mean they’re actually at work. Presenteeism — employees who’re at their desks, but not engaged in actual work — hurts the bottom line just as much, if not more, than employees who call in sick or never show up at all.

Both presenteeism and absenteeism can be areas of concern for employers worried about productivity, paying wages for time not actually worked and, ultimately, profitability.

According to a 2007 survey conducted by CCH, a provider of human resources and employment law information, 34 percent of people call in at the last minute to take time off work because of “personal illness,” but 66 percent are actually taking time off to deal with something in their personal lives. Unscheduled absenteeism costs the country’s largest employers more than $760,000 a year in direct payroll costs, according to the CCH survey.

There’s also a pattern to when employees call in “sick.” Unscheduled absences are highest on Mondays and Fridays, around holidays and during flu and hay fever seasons.

But what about presenteeism? How harmful is it when employees come to work and then do … nothing?

Pretty harmful. At best, employees who show up but do little aren’t doing the work for which their bosses are paying them. Employees who show up but struggle to be productive because they don’t feel well are putting their co-workers’ health at risk.

What’s an employer to do? And why does this happen in the first place?

Presenteeism is often the result of illness. Employees don’t feel well, but fear repercussion from their supervisor if they miss a day of work. So they show up anyway, but struggle to be productive because they don’t feel well. It’s a sad cycle. Needless to say, coming to work when you’re sick instead of resting often prolongs the amount of time you’re sick. Employers can combat this by encouraging employees to stay home and rest when they don’t feel well, ensuring a smooth return to the workplace when they’re better.

Presenteeism also can also be a result of stress. Employees sometimes feel so stressed by their workload that instead of working, they let their minds wander by chatting with co-workers or surfing the Internet. More than a third of employees report losing an hour of productivity per day at work because of stress, according to a recent StressPulse Survey by ComPsych Corp. The rate of presenteeism in America is 22 percent, according to the survey of nearly 2,000 workers.

There’s hope, however.

Employers who offer flexibility in work arrangements have the most success at keeping employees present and engaged. Here are some options for employers to consider:


A compressed workweek.

Flexible time off for programs at a child’s school or an elderly parent’s doctor’s appointment.

Paid leave banks or paid time off. This can eliminate the stress of missing a day for illness or stress.

Sick days that carry over from one year to the next.

Emergency child care.

On-site child care.

Job sharing.

Employee assistance programs.

Wellness programs.

Work environments with higher morale have fewer unscheduled absences than those whose employees dread being at the office. That might sound like a no-brainer, but employers can play a part in boosting employee morale.

Here some tips from entrepreneur.com for cultivating happier and more engaged employees:

Celebrate accomplishments.

Keep work meaningful and fun.

Think outside the cubicle walls. Take work outdoors or to another space whenever possible.

Train employees to develop positive attitudes. Show inspirational videos.

Whatever the method, employers who embrace morale and encourage time away from the office will most likely find themselves with employees who are absent less often and more engaged when they’re there. And that’s a win for everyone’s bottom line.