Presenteeism is both important and somewhat misunderstood. In practice, the term seems to be associated with at least three different meanings. One of these refers to people attending work even though they are sick, which is quite common. Many people will still attend work when they have a cold or perhaps an ongoing health condition such as a migraine or hay fever.

Generally, when people are sick they perform less effectively. For example, the results below show the loss of productivity associated with some of the common forms of illness that do not always prevent people from working.

Condition Average productivity loss*
Seasonal allergies/Allergic Rhinitis/Hay fever 4.1%
Migraine 4.9%
Depression 7.6%

Source: Hemp, P Harvard Business Review, 2004

The second meaning for presenteeism concerns putting in long hours but not actually working all of the time, or leading people to believe that you are working (e.g. leaving a jacket on the back of a chair) – sometimes referred to as putting in “face time”. The third meaning involves working at a reduced level because of other distractions, such as browsing the internet or playing games online.

Presenteeism costs

As far as research on presenteeism is concerned it is the first type of presenteeism, “sickness presenteeism”, which has received the most attention. Sickness presenteeism due to psychological problems seems to be a particular problem and some reports have estimated that the costs of presenteeism are greater than those due to sickness absence. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (Undated) has estimated that in the UK in 2006, presenteeism, based on psychological health problems, accounted for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism, and costs more to employers because it is more common among higher-paid staff. They also estimated that the average cost of psychological health problems per average employee was £1,000 pa – with sickness absence accounting for 32% of this and presenteeism 58%.

Presenteeism statistics

There is little doubt that presenteeism is quite widespread. The table below shows some prevalence data for presenteeism that we have collected at Robertson Cooper from a sample of nearly 40,000 employees in the UK.

Health “Good” Health “Not good”
No absences 35%(Healthy & present) 28% (Presentees)
Some absences 13% (Healthy but not always present) 24% (Unhealthy and not always present)

Some 28% (about 11,000 people) reported some degree of presenteeism. Levels of presenteeism are associated with a number of other factors and further analysis of the results from the sample above showed, that for people who report poorer than average levels of psychological wellbeing, presenteeism is even higher (38%).