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What is presenteeism?

Absenteeism is easy to track, understand and often to influence, yet lurking in the dark is another metric of lost productivity in our organisations – presenteeism.

This enemy to innovation and effectiveness is much worse for the bottom line than absenteeism and according to the CIPD, presenteeism has more than tripled since 2010. Let’s take a look at what we mean by presenteeism and understand its intricate relationship with wellbeing.

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.

loss of productivity
(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. According to a study by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, at the beginning of the 2007-8 recession the estimated annual costs of presenteeism to UK employers in mental ill health terms was £15.1bn; the cost of absenteeism was only £8.4bn. Even before Covid-19, working needlessly long hours in the office wasn’t good for us.

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.

presenteeism statistics

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%).

So what can we do to reduce presenteeism? The short answer is to create more Good Days at Work! At Robertson Cooper, we take a holistic and cultural approach to ensuring the work environment is set up for maximum wellbeing – one where employees do not have to experience presenteeism. A comprehensive and far-reaching wellbeing strategy will allow your organisation to understand what actions you can take to reduce presenteeism and create a wellbeing culture.

Unlock more Good Days at Work with a comprehensive wellbeing strategy