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02 Oct 2020

Presenteeism: why your employees may not be working at optimal levels and what you can do about it

Absenteeism is easy to understand and measure. Your employee simply isn’t there. By contrast, presenteeism is more subtle. It’s when an employee physically turns up at work but is not working at full productivity. However, Dr David Batman, member of the Virgin Pulse Science Advisory Board, highlights that the causes can be varied and may not be physical at all.


Absenteeism has been on the radar for businesses for a long time according to Virgin Pulse’s data scientist, Dr Sackett. “Everyone can see that if your employee isn’t at work, it’s costing you money,” Dr Sackett says.

Conservative estimates by the likes of PwC and Deloitte put the annual cost of absenteeism to businesses in the billions.

But when we analysed the data of our wellbeing platform, which we gathered from almost 2,000 participants in 17 countries, it clearly showed that absenteeism levels were less than 10% of total presenteeism levels.

“On average, employees in our sample group took about four sick days off each year, but when they reported on how many days they lost while on the job, that number shot up to a staggering 57.5 days per year per employee,” Dr Sackett says. “That’s almost 12 full working weeks or one quarter of the entire year – that employees admit they really aren’t performing at their best.”

Joe Queenan, journalist and commentator, describes presenteeism as “a situation that arises when sick employees drag their forlorn carcasses into the office and waste everyone else’s time by hacking their way through their working day on an empty tank.”

Life is tough – plan for it

Dr Batman states “everyone will face tough challenges at some stage in their lives. Psychological challenges are so widespread that workplaces should view them as inevitable and plan accordingly.

“It’s a fact that life is uncertain and psychological challenges are going to affect everybody at some stage. Each day, 17% of the workforce will be affected by some form of psychological problem, and one in four will suffer from a major diagnosable mental health disorder in their lifetime, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is off the hook,” Dr Batman says.

“Some of us will lose a loved one or suffer the breakdown of a relationship. We may experience a financial disaster or be bullied at work. We may be victims of crime, have a car accident, contract a serious illness or break a leg while skiing,” he adds.

A resilient business is built on resilient people

“Life happens and it can be really tough,” he says. “These are all things that can affect our focus and performance at work and they can happen to anyone.”

Workplaces cannot avoid the inevitability of managing staff in crisis. You can’t plan your business around a team of robots that never experience any human challenges – that’s just unrealistic.

“Far better to create a supportive culture and build a resilient team that can effectively deal with the inevitable struggles of being human,” adds Dr Batman.

So how do you tackle presenteeism?

One advantage of presenteeism is how quickly you can bring about dramatic positive change. There is no quick fix for absenteeism, according to Dr Batman: “It needs long term solutions, but presenteeism responds well to short term action that tackles those underlying issues of sleep, stress and happiness in creative ways.”

The critical element is balance – a simple, scientific equation not nearly as difficult to manage as people think.

“Balance is about how you manage your life – at work and at home – and it’s just a series of simple steps,” Dr Batman says. “It’s how you exercise, eat, drink, whether or not you smoke, how well rested you are and whether you find time for yourself, family and colleagues.”

Workplace wellbeing programmes take these principles and simplify them so they can be delivered easily in a workplace setting. Our own programme clearly shows that by investing in your people, you can make measureable improvements in productivity and reduce the phenomenon of lost time in your business.

“For example, employees who participated in our wellbeing programmes, reported substantial improvements in sleep, stress levels and overall happiness levels at the end of the programme,” Dr Sackett says.

“These changes were associated with improvements in their productivity. Those who participated in our wellbeing programme were not only generally happier and more relaxed, they were also markedly more productive than they had been before the programme. We were able to detect a substantial reduction in presenteeism. In simple terms, this means employees were spending more of the time they were at work actually working – and enjoying it more,” concludes Dr Sackett.

This article is provided by Virgin Pulse.

In partnership with Virgin Pulse

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