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Why Presenteeism Is The Silent Threat To Workplace Productivity

In order for your company to be a success, you need your people to be successful in their lives too. They need to be healthy, happy and productive in order to move ahead as a cohesive unit.

The Globe and Mail actually hit it perfectly.

People are not machines. Without proper support, they may not perform to their full potential – or may even break down.”

It’s such a simple concept when you look at it. When performance is impaired due to workers suffering from a chronic condition or mental health issues, somebody has to make the call to invest, develop and follow through with a mental health strategy.

Absenteeism vs. Presenteeism: What’s the difference?

First, let’s start with the more popular of these two close cousins.

According to data from the Conference Board of Canada, employee absenteeism cost Canadian companies $16.6 billion in 2012. Absenteeism is a pattern of an employee’s intentional or habitual absence from work. It is more apparent, because you know when someone doesn’t show up for work.

Presenteeism is when workers are on the job, but because of a physical or emotional issue, they’re not fully functioning or distracted to the point of reduced productivity. Leading some experts to figure that the lost productivity from presenteeism is at least 3x higher than from absenteeism. And presenteeism can be very difficult to gauge, because you often can’t tell when or how much an illness or a medical condition is hindering someone’s performance.

So basically, you’re at work – but you’re out of it.

Being present doesn’t always mean being productive

Despite our ever-present obsession over data, many organizations still have a tough enough time tracking employee absences. And even if they do, it’s at a very high level of documentation and not addressing the real reasons behind the leave. Whether it’s due to a lack of resources or strictly apathy, these are very real direct and indirect costs that affect a company’s health. According to a study conducted by Morneau-Shepell, they mentioned that, “while most appreciate the economic impact of absenteeism, less than half (46%) of all Canadian organizations actually track absenteeism.”

So if we’re already having a tough time tracking the why behind an employees’ leave – how are we going to measure the overall impact of presenteeism?

It’s time employers address the presenteeism issue in their room

We’re at a point where it is vital that plan sponsors start to visualize the human and financial cost of mental health issues in the workplace and how unhealthy and distracted employees need help.

In that same report from Morneau-Shepell, it was uncovered that employees view presenteeism as a far more serious issue than absenteeism, whereas employers see it opposite.

Whether it was due to higher work-related stress and lower levels of support from their organization for mental wellness, the employee respondents had this to say about the growing concerns:

  • 81% indicated they went into work while they were not able to perform as well as they would have liked,
  • 47% indicated that physical sickness played a role,
  • 40% cited that stress or anxiety was a cause,
  • 22% blamed issues with their workplace, co-workers or managers,
  • And 15% cited depression.

When you couple this with how the Mental Health Commission of Canada outlines a “psychologically healthy workplace,” it is supposed to be built on factors such as having psychological and social support available, a respectful organizational culture, consideration for physical and psychological demands of the job, and work-life balance is seen as important, among many others.

And what is the root cause of people being present at work, but not able to function? One of the reasons is that they’re worried about how it will look if they need to take time off for a mental health reason, or the fear they might end up losing their job.

How can employers help with presenteeism?

A lot of medical research suggests that prolonged exposure to stress has strong links to chronic health conditions. Organizations can start to identify the root causes, analyze patterns and start to put effective programs in place to help curb this.

It starts at the top and seeps into the overall culture. It means taking this seriously and actually looking at how much your sick time costs add up, coupled with the downstream planning of what will happen if you continue to do nothing.

Employees can tell if their workplace culture is toxic or if a health and wellness push is just a façade that looks good for business – but has no real backing.

Here are a few closing thoughts on all of this.

  • Promote health at work – and actually mean it

As an employer, are you actually making a focus on overall health? Are you making even small investments into screening, treatment and education? Anything that helps foster a healthy workplace culture will ultimately see a substantial gain in productivity because people have manageable workloads, their involvement is encouraged and they feel engaged and connected to the company vision.

  • Allow your team to work remotely/from home 

If you don’t trust your employees to work from outside the office – why did you hire them in the first place? Allowing your team to work remotely strengthens your trust in them, and vice versa. So if they’re feeling overwhelmed or they feel they need to shut it down for a few hours, there shouldn’t be a problem for them to work at home. The workplace is evolving, and not everyone feels they can always deliver value between the hours of 9-5.

  • Turn to your Employee Assistance Plan for help

I am a major proponent of Employee Assistance Plans and how they’re such a powerful and cost effective way of investing in your team, and developing a mental health strategy the right way. The high-velocity pace of the startup world operates at a “getting the job done at any cost” type of mantra. Employee Assistance Plan’s are designed to deliver a variety of services to keep employees healthy, happy and productive – and getting their family members help when needed as well.

People can’t just turn these problems off when they come to work. The challenge is that employers need to do a better job at being aware of these issues that impact their team, and start putting more of an emphasis on prevention, education and awareness and self-assessment services.