Before the pandemic hitresearch from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found 83% of its respondents had observed presenteeism in their organisation and a quarter of those surveyed (25%) had said the problem had worsened since the previous year. 

More recent statistics show that 46% of employees surveyed by The Society of Occupational Medicine said they felt more pressure to be ‘present’ since working from home (Presenteeism during the COVID-19 pandemic: Risk factors and solutions).

Many businesses have long-known that presenteeism can cause problems, not just by creating an unhealthy, unsupportive culture for workers but also impacting the company’s bottom line; research from the Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism costs the UK economy £15.1bn per annum, while absenteeism costs £8.4bn (Managing presenteeism: a discussion paper).

E-Presenteeism, what is it?

Cherie Blair QC said ‘Presenteeism is a curse and not a blessing and we can do things differently.’ The idea behind presenteeism is when people show up for work but aren’t productive. Some simply feel obliged or pressured to work long hours and always be ‘on’, or when employees show up to work when they’re unwell—whether with physical or mental health issues.

Some businesses still have deep-rooted tradition and old-fashioned working habits, the advent of increased technology and innovations such as cloud-based systems haven’t created the flexibility and agility many hoped for, but simply created more ways to work and be contacted.

More than a third (35%) have continued to work while feeling unwell and younger people are more likely to do so (41% aged 25-34, compared to 20% 55+)

This leads us on to e-presenteeism. While many companies have been embracing flexible working for a while, for many the first lockdown was the first businesses experienced it. A Harvard Business Review study (Where Did the Commute Time Go?) found that those who would ordinarily have spent time commuting worked “extra” time and attended more meetings when working from home. (pre-pandemic the average commuter faced an 58-minute daily journey—the equivalent of 27 working days a year).

There’s a very basic reason why the mass move to working from home, didn’t help stop presenteeism but simply encouraged the trend to grow. 

Research findings indicate that people tend to alternate periods of presenteeism with absenteeism. Employees experiencing chronic health problems may initially take time off sick but, for several reasons (such as work demands, job insecurity or lack of sick pay), return to work too soon or continue working during subsequent bouts of illness. This exacerbates the existing health problems and can lead to other difficulties such as exhaustion and burnout over time.

Tackling presenteeism

This should be a priority for your business as many re-adjust to the new normal of hybrid working. It’s important not just from a productivity perspective but to also ‘fix’ culture and subconscious bias. 

Conscious inclusion could be another important factor in helping tackle presenteeism. It can be hard to shift the perception that those being the most visible are the most productive but this can inevitably mean certain people could therefore be viewed as less productive because they simply aren’t able to devote so much additional time to work.

To build a culture where everyone feels genuinely included with a strong sense of belonging takes more than just awareness of bias. It requires action and commitment to help others build the capability and the confidence to intervene and interrupt bias, effectively and in the moment. Only then can you work towards building a truly inclusive culture which doesn’t value presenteeism.

It can be difficult to spot presenteeism but one of the red flags can be decreased productivity. In these instances, increased communication, as well as leading from the top and clearly logging off and not being available during non-working hours is important.

While e-presenteeism might be considered a relatively new phenomenon, traditional presenteeism certainly isn’t. However, with more awareness and tools to tackle the problem, there’s no reason why presenteeism in all forms can’t become a thing of the past.