Every manager knows the damage caused by absenteeism—loss of productivity, eroding morale, and projects stalled for lack of a key contribution. But what about the risks presented by its opposite: presenteeism?
Presenteeism is showing up to work regardless of weather, illness, family obligations, or burnout—situations in which employees really should stay home. And presenteeism is rampant: the average U.S. worker leaves almost half of their time off unused, and two-thirds report doing work on the vacation days they do take. Surveys in 2017 by Project Time Off, a project of the U.S. Travel Association, and the website Glassdoor.com found that fewer than one in four Americans use all of their vacation time—even though we have less paid vacation than any other developed country.
There are many reasons why we show up when we shouldn’t: not wanting to let your coworkers down, the desire to appear diligent and motivated, fear of getting passed over for promotion or even fired if we don’t give 150 percent to the job. The simple truth is that many workers don’t get paid for personal time off. The U.S. is the only advanced economy with no paid time off (or PTO) required at all, and one in four Americans have no PTO at all. But whatever motivates it, presenteeism is a risk for managers that’s comparable to absenteeism—and much harder to guard against.
Both state that staffers who don’t practice a good work/life balance are likely to be less productive, more irritable, prone to relationship and family crisis, and less creative in their thinking because they don’t experience enough of life outside the workplace.
Take a Sick Day
Perhaps the biggest risk comes from employees who feel driven to come to work even though they’re sick. I’ll just stay in my cubicle, we tell ourselves. There’s just no way I can skip a day when my coworkers depend on me and that big project is due Monday—they need me!
But employees who show up to work sick may be putting everyone’s health at risk. Lange pointed out that what we think of as a cold or the flu is sometimes a norovirus or staph infection. “Chipotle has had six outbreaks [of “food poisoning”] in the last few years, three of which were norovirus outbreaks caused by sick employees going to work,” Lange says.
Despite stereotypes, these diseases are not limited to cruise ships and hospitals. If you stay home from work and go the doctor, they can be easily diagnosed. But if you force yourself to go to work, you’ll leave viruses on doorknobs and coffeepot handles, and probably cough or sneeze, spreading your disease.
As the Chipotle example shows, the risk to your company’s reputation can go far beyond any immediate risk to productivity and internal morale.
Even noninfectious maladies (such as back pain) present workplace risk. “Research shows employees in pain...are more prone to workplace accidents and performance issues,” Marzolph says. When fighting through injury, stress, or illness, staffers are likely to be irritable, distracted, and less able to focus. Is that who you want dealing with customers? Make sure your company has a reasonable sick-day policy and that it is communicated to staff.
Aim for an Eight-Hour Day
Presenteeism can border on compulsion. For most people, presenteeism is driven more by unspoken fears than heroism in the office. At the extreme, we work long hours—for coworkers and bosses to see—while handling personal tasks from our desks, such as online shopping, when we think no one will notice.
The hardest thing to admit is that we might not actually be as indispensable to our workplace as we want to believe. Not only will people probably get along without us, but, if you’re a manager, it might even be beneficial for employees under you to get a chance to figure things out on their own. The secret fear underlying a lot of presenteeism is that our colleagues might not need us at all. Better to always be at the office rather than risk people realizing that they don’t need me!
Ultimately, it’s healthier and more honest to aim for an eight-hour day (complete with breaks for lunch and rejuvenative walks), and taking sick/personal days as needed to arrive at work rested and enthusiastic every day.
How Employers Can Reduce Presenteeism
First of all, live up to your stated policies. Almost every employer says they don’t want you to come in to work sick, but at many offices, people who take time off for illness or whatever reason are seen as less committed. Your staff is good at reading between the lines, so employers need to communicate that it’s actually wrong for workers to come to work sick, and that they will be held accountable. Send people home on the spot if you need to.
Help your workers plan for their vacation days. Cross-train so that workers can cover for each other during time off.
You can also lead by example: Don’t show up to work with the sniffles. Make sure you are taking your vacation days.
Labor is any company’s most valuable commodity. But there’s a difference between an occupied chair and a productive, engaged worker. Making sure everyone has a chance to stay healthy and recharged will keep your workforce vibrant.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.