They show up for work every day — but their minds are elsewhere and they only do enough work to get by.
Presenteeism is a growing problem in today’s workforce, says Sue Brown, Toronto-based director of the Healthy Returns program at Sunlife Financial. “Their bums are in their seats but these workers aren’t completely there — they’re disengaged because they’re distracted by illness or personal issues.”
Employees suffering from presenteeism don’t always fit the ‘slacker’ stereotype. Motivated by fear of layoffs or the belief that their physical presence shows job commitment, some may even put in excessive work hours — even though this actually makes them less productive than co-workers who keep a more balanced schedule.
Research indicates that presenteeism is a bigger problem than absenteeism in terms of lost productivity, says Brown. “It’s about four times bigger than absenteeism in terms of hours lost,” she says.
Some experts say the problem may be even bigger. Different risk factors in the demographics of the workforce such as age, obesity and so on need to be considered in evaluating the prevalence of presenteeism, says Joseph Ricciuti, client solutions leader at Toronto-based Watson Wyatt Canada, a human resources consultancy. “The ratio of presenteeism to absenteeism can range from 2.5 to 8.6 times.”
The problem has grown particularly acute in the present economic downturn, says Karen Seward, senior vice-president at Shepell.fgi, a Toronto-based EAP provider. “Our call centre volumes have gone up about 20 per cent this year,” she says.
However, absenteeism rates haven’t changed significantly, she adds. “We expected to see a lot of people off work, but we’re seeing the opposite.”
People are staying at work even though they may need time off to deal with their issues because they fear losing their jobs, she explains. “If someone else can do their work for a period of time, then the implication is they’re not needed within the organization. But these workers spend a lot of their time at work worrying about their personal issues.”
The top three medical causes of presenteeism are depression, fatigue and insomnia, says Ricciuti. “The most frequent diagnoses and healthcare costs associated with presenteeism have to do with mental health,” agrees Dr. Robert Anfield, chief medical officer for disability at CIGNA, a Philadelphia-based insurance company.
However, the current economic downturn is only partly to blame for these increases. “The rates of depression have actually been climbing for the past eight years — it’s the number one cause of disability,” says Brown.
Stress is the common thread that runs through most issues with worker health and productivity, and the work environment is a key contributor. In a recent Canadian survey conducted by Watson Wyatt Canada, organizations were asked about the key sources of worker stress. The top factors cited were: excessive workload, lack of work-life balance, fear of job loss and technology that expands availability during non-working hours.
Health and family issues take their toll as well. In another survey conducted by CIGNA last year, about 61 per cent of U.S. workers said they’d reported for duty while they were sick or coping with family and personal matters. On average, they did this nearly seven days in the last six months — more than twice as often as they missed work.
Employee assistance programs (EAP) are the best vehicle for dealing with presenteeism, says Ricciuti. “They serve to calm a situation down, and relieve employees’ distress with their situations. EAP plays a big role in assisting management and helping them deal with these worker issues.”
Anfield points out that many employees feel overwhelmed by their problems, and often don’t know where to start to tackle them, which can intensify stress levels. “EAP offers one-stop shopping for the full gamut of services provided by the employer and the wider community to help them deal with their issues. It lets workers know they have choices.”
Presenteeism occurs across all industry sectors, so EAP programs are typically tailored for different work environments. “Employers need to know their employees: their demographic makeup and the issues they’re likely facing,” says Anfield. In a call centre with a workforce comprised primarily of women in their childbearing years, programs may focus on offering information about childcare in the community and pediatrics, while a manufacturing firm with older employees may offer information about elder care and chronic disease management.
Another bonus is that companies that have effective health and productivity management programs in place tend to perform better financially, says Ricciuti. “Productivity is the factor that indicates the company has an effective workforce. If you don’t have effective EAP programs, then you get poor performance.”
Brown says companies aren’t cutting back on EAP and other health and wellness programs in the current downturn. “We’re actually surpassing our targets this year. The message is out, and leaders seem to be listening. During hard times, workers need help coping with stress at work and at home.”
Tips for managers
Managers need to look at deviations from usual behavioural patterns to detect workers suffering from presenteeism. “Managers should note changes in their people’s behaviour in the workplace, their physical appearance, negative attitude and quality of work over time so they can say, ‘I noticed you’re missing a lot of deadlines lately,’” says Seward.
This may be a challenge at many downsized organizations, says Anfield. “Many managers have gone from having five reports to 12, so it becomes difficult to really know employees well. But that’s the key to early detection of presenteeism: it’s typically a number of subtle behavioural changes observed over time, not one big ‘Aha!’”
The biggest problem many workers have is admitting they have a problem. “Managers need to be comfortable enough to have that sensitive conversation with an employee about the changes in their behaviour,” says Seward.
Talking to employees about their presenteeism can be a challenge. Open-ended questions should be used in the conversation to get to the heart of the matter, and listening is more important than talking, she says. “Managers should talk to employees about behaviours they’ve observed, and not hypothesize about the cause.”
While employees need to be treated with dignity and can’t be forced to get help, most people are willing to rectify an issue when a manager points it out.
“The key tool for rectifying the situation is calling the EAP number,” Seward says.
Establishing an open door policy will help employees feel more comfortable about approaching managers when personal problems arise that may affect job performance. It can also keep a potential problem from spiralling out of control and growing into a major issue.
But managers also need to set fair and reasonable performance goals. People are less productive when they don't know what's expected of them because they feel lost. Workers may also believe they have no choice but to give up when they think it's impossible to meet the workload demands.
Organizations should also have standards in place defining the amount of overtime employees should work. Some sectors such as accounting firms have a busy period every year during tax season, so larger workloads and long hours are unavoidable. But these companies can still use incentives to keep stress levels down.
“Employers can encourage their staff to schedule a long vacation after the busy season so they have something to look forward to, which helps them cope during the crunch period,” says Seward.
Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.