Presenteeism and How it May be Affecting You and Your Work

Presenteeism, engagement, stress management, burnout
7 min read

Just Showing Up is not Enough in Today's Busy World

Woody Allen once said, “80% of life is just showing up.” This doesn't seem to hold up in today’s world. Just showing up for your work or your family is not enough. Distractions, fatigue, hours of nonstop screen time, blurred work-life boundaries, constant stress, and burnout are all examples of why we need to be focusing on way more than just showing up.

What is Presenteeism?

In the workplace, presenteeism is defined as the problem of workers being on the job, but because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning. When an employee is present and not working, it is difficult to see the productivity gap as clearly as when an employee is absent. Why is this so important to you, your workplace and the people in your life you lead?
The problem spills over into many areas of life. When you are caught in a cycle of distraction or burnout, all areas of your life are affected. Your relationships can begin to feel empty and your work passionless. If you are a leader in your workplace or in your home, presenteeism can affect those around you. This can be very damaging to an organization, team, or family.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost employers $225.8 billion annually in the United States, or $1,685 per employee. But as high as those numbers are, presenteeism may be even more costly. Workers who are present but not working efficiently due to illness or other health factors cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars every year.  A survey by Virgin Pulse Global Challenge showed employees in their study averaged 4 sick days a year but indicated that the time they lost while on the job (being present but not working productively) added up to a staggering 57.5 days per year per employee. The cost of presenteeism in the workplace could account for one-and-a-half times the cost of sick leave.
The effect of presenteeism doesn’t just affect the workplace. It can have a personal impact on yourself, your family, and your relationships. When illness, pain, stress, or burnout are not properly managed it begins to negatively affect all aspects of your life.

Top reasons why people are showing up but not present: 

  • Dual-earner parents or single parent households: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48% of married couples have duel-earners. Many more are single parents without spousal support. Without a stay-at-home parent to care for a sick child, many workers will go to work when they are ill to save sick days for when their children are sick.
  • Workers who are also caretakers: Added to the mix are the 25 million American workers who provide informal care for an elderly family member or friend who needs help with basic personal needs and daily activities. Those who care for aging parents as well as their own children are often referred to as the “sandwich generation.” It is common for those who fall into this category to avoid self-care or sick days for themselves to care for others.
  • Fear: For many, it is the fear of letting others down, getting fired, not moving up in the company or the job not getting done without you. This can sometimes be linked to organizational weaknesses but also to personal emotions. Your own ego or feelings of loyalty or self-importance can fuel fears. When you don’t address these emotions, it can lead to higher rates of presenteeism and can also take a serious toll on personal relationships.
  • Stress and Burnout: Work will be stressful at times. If you are not taking your well-being seriously and balancing the pressures of your job with consistent stress management, burnout will eventually ensue. Burnout is a top reason for presenteeism at work and at home. When you are experiencing high levels of unmanaged stress or burnout, it is very challenging to show up for others.
  • Lack of self-care:  A vast majority of illness, pain and disease can be linked to lifestyle. Your daily habits and self-care routines will play a vital role in your day-to-day mental and physical energy.
  • Organizational issues: If a workplace discourages time off or doesn’t make it available to employees, the risk and rate of presenteeism can be expected to be much higher.

The impact presenteeism can have:

Loss of confidence and purpose: Even if you can get away with occasionally ‘just showing up’ and not being as productive as you should on the job, you are doing nothing for you own mental well-being. Not being able to handle your workload because you are not well or in pain will only leave you feeling worse in the long-term. Eventually, you may begin to experience burnout or lose purpose in your work or in your life. Often those that are plowing through and not addressing physical or mental illness, will lose self-confidence. You can’t expect others to have confidence and faith in you if you don’t have it yourself.

More stress: Being unproductive for days or periods of time will typically lead to an even greater workload later, for yourself or for someone else on your team.
Staying connected to your work, your team and your family is essential to your happiness. If you are only showing up and not engaging you lose that connection and value in your company’s purpose.

Nurturing a bad habit: Presenteeism or going through your day constantly distracted can become a bad habit. If you consistently put your self-care on the back burner, it will have a trickle down affect and begin to impact all areas of your life.
  1. Recognize the problem: How many days in the last few month or hours in your day are you present but not engaged in work or family tasks? During time at home or with your family, are you often distracted by your work or worrying about your work? Assess what your reasons are for not being truly present in your day and with your responsibilities. Are you struggling to manage pain or illness? Talk with your doctor, therapist, or health coach. Begin taking small steps to improve daily habits that will lead to improved health long-term. Talk to your boss or manager about the issues so they are aware and can better support you at work. Be honest with your loved ones. Let them know specifically what they can do to better support you.
  2. Understand your time off and sick leave. Review your benefits and company policies on paid time off and sick leave. Take time off if you are sick or in severe pain, even if you are working from home. Address the problem, seek medical attention where needed and practice habits that will provide you with sufficient rest outside of work. According to data from Ipsos Survey and Oxford Economics Study in 2018, 55% of Americans don’t use all of their paid time off. Yet, the estimated costs of presenteeism continue to rise year after year.
  3. Set boundaries at work and at home. No matter what your job is or how much you love it, work can be anxiety-provoking. You must work to separate work life and home life the best you can, especially if you are working from home. Practice being more mindful at work and in relationships. Use more careful planning and scheduling so you can block out times without distractions. If you find yourself answering emails or work calls at all hours of the day and your job role doesn’t require that, it is time to adjust. Set notices or automated responses that let coworkers know you are unavailable at certain times of the day or outside of work hours. Do your best to put work stress aside when you are with your family or loved ones. Continuing to plow through and not address these boundaries will most certainly lead to greater stress and resentment in both areas of your life.
  4. Tap into your wellness program and benefits. If you assess your issues and realize that presenteeism or burnout is a common issue for you, get support where you can. Participating in your company’s wellness activities can help you put self-care on the forefront as well as improve your connection to your work. Employee assistance programs and mental health services are often company benefits that are meant to support employees during challenging times. Take advantage of these services.
  5. Improve communication skills and let go of ego. Coming to work sick or unwell should not be seen as a strong quality in your own eyes or anyone else’s. If you are in a leadership position, this is not a good precedence to set. Be confident in yourself and your work, but don’t adopt an attitude that the world won’t go one without you. Work to ask for more support when you need it, both at home and in the workplace.
  6. Learn to better manage and address pain. Pain can be one of the most common distractions from your work. The CDC estimates that one in six Americans are in pain nearly every day. Pain medications can often compound the problem of presenteeism. Work on addressing the problem with more alternative and long-term approaches. Take regular work breaks where you are moving, stretching, or doing something active. Practicing regular meditation and mindfulness has been shown to be more effective in managing chronic pain than pain medications in many cases. Work with your doctor to find out more about alternative treatments, physical therapy or specific exercises that can help.
If presenteeism isn’t already on your radar, it should be. To be happy and fulfilled you need to be showing up, present and thriving in all aspects of life. Companies ultimately thrive or die based on the productivity of their employees. Individuals need to work on healthy changes so they can be more present in their work and their personal lives. Organizations and leaders need to address aspects of workplace culture that will support their workforce in living healthier lifestyles and staying motivated in the long term.

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