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What is presenteeism?

Left unchecked, this troubling trend can cost your organization money and alienate talented workers.

Posted October 11, 2022 by the Future Forum team

Reading time 9 min

Say you wake up one weekday morning with a cough and a runny nose. Your body is telling you it needs some extra rest, but your colleagues are counting on you to move a big project forward this week and you don’t want to hold everyone up. 

Do you …

A) Fire off a quick email to your team and let them know you’ll be taking the day off? or 

B) Drag yourself out of bed and start rummaging around in your closet for a clean shirt to put on before your first Zoom meeting of the day?

If you chose B, your organizational culture might have a serious case of what organizational psychologists call presenteeism. 

The term presenteeism was originally coined in the mid-1990s to describe people showing up to work when they’re sick for fear of the consequences for taking time off. Its definition has since grown to encompass a range of unhealthy workplace attitudes and behaviors: Finance bankers who stay at the office until 9 p.m. every night, parents who respond to work emails at the dinner table, and even some workers who feel called to join the burned-out ranks of the quiet quitters are all subject to the forces of presenteeism.

Presenteeism, defined

Presenteeism is the pressure employees feel to meet their company’s behavioral expectations, rather than its business goals. Because it incentivizes people to waste time and effort making their work visible instead of good, presenteeism is a productivity killer. What’s worse, it can contribute to worker burnout and even exacerbate employees’ chronic health conditions.

Presenteeism can cost your organization money and alienate talented workers. But astute business leaders have shown that it’s possible to fight back against this troubling trend. You can, too, by first identifying presenteeism in your company and then taking the steps to stop it. Here’s how:

The two strains of presenteeism—and how to fight them

The term presenteeism has developed two distinct but interrelated meanings: one definition concerns working through illness. The other meaning describes the pressure to “perform” your job by spending long hours in the office or online, sending lots of emails or instant messages, and scheduling lots of meetings. 

Each understanding of the term has its own set of symptoms and requires different strategies to combat. But both versions of presenteeism are underpinned by the same flawed assumptions from management: that the people who appear to be working the most are the people who are doing the best work. 

“To avoid digital presenteeism at an organizational level, you need to look at your culture and the technology you use. From a cultural perspective at Qatalog, we are explicit that we are an async-first organization, and output is what matters.” 

Tariq Rauf, CEO of Qatalog

Recognizing sickness presenteeism

The original research into presenteeism focused on the costs to companies that pressure their employees to come into the office when they’re sick. 

“You see high rates of sickness presenteeism at companies where taking time off is seen as a sign of weakness,” says Stephen Bevan, Director of Employer Research and Consultancy at the British nonprofit Institute for Employment Studies

Sickness presenteeism can cause serious health problems for employees, including making it hard to schedule medical appointments, exacerbating stress and fatigue, and increasing potential exposure to a sick coworker’s germs, Bevan says.

And studies show that employees who try to work through their illness actually cost their companies more money than those who take time off to recover. Harvard Business Review reported on a pair of studies from the Journal of American Medicine suggesting that “on-the-job productivity loss resulting from depression and pain was roughly three times greater than the absence-related productivity loss attributed to these conditions,” and that “presenteeism costs employers two to three times more than direct medical care, which is paid for by companies in the form of insurance premiums or employee claims.” A study back in 2004 found that presenteeism could be costing U.S. companies $150 billion annually. 

Combatting sickness presenteeism

Reward performance over attendance: A few years ago, the Royal Mail, the United Kingdom’s postal service, announced that their employees with the fewest sickness absences would be entered in a raffle to win a car.

“We have to think very seriously about whether people having zero sickness absences for a whole year is a good thing,” Bevan says. In other words, your messaging and policies should reward people based on their performance—not their attendance.

Humanize your sick leave policies: Bevan described a prominent insurance company in Britain that sought his institute’s help in reducing their presenteeism costs. “This company had quite draconian policies. People who needed more than one day off at a time were subject to close scrutiny,” he says. When the company changed its policies to allow its employees a more realistic latitude for illness, their rates of presenteeism declined.

Performative presenteeism

Another strain of presenteeism is the pressure your employees feel to make sure their managers know they’re working. 

“It’s an outsized emphasis on someone’s visible engagement with a workplace, regardless of the quality of work they’re producing,” says culture critic Anne Helen Petersen, who coauthored the recent book Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. “And ‘visible’ can have different manifestations here: it can be that your butt is in your seat in an office, or it can mean that your green dot is visible on Slack, and you’re contributing continuously to conversations.”

Digital work software company Qatalog and open source software company GitHub jointly published a report finding that 54% of knowledge workers feel pressure to show colleagues and managers they are online and working during certain times of the day, and workers spend an extra 67 minutes a day making their work visible so their managers will know they’re contributing, a phenomenon Qatalog CEO Tariq Rauf calls “digital presenteeism.”

“Digital presenteeism is when workers show colleagues and bosses they are online and ‘working’ even if they’re not being productive,” Rauf says. “Workers are desperate to avoid suspicion that they aren’t working hard enough, and they’re falling back on the same old habits, adapted for the digital workplace.

“The pandemic gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape our working lives and cast aside vestiges we learned in the office era, yet it’s clear from our research that we are repeating the same mistakes, as digital presenteeism is pervasive,” says Rauf.

Recognizing performative presenteeism

The same outward habits can take on different meanings in different company cultures, and even for different employees in the same culture. Are your employees showing up to the office because they’re inspired by the work and eager to be part of the team or because they’re afraid their contributions will go unnoticed if they’re not there to defend themselves? Is that rapid-fire Slack conversation generating new ideas and solving problems or are your employees competing to be seen as engaged and thoughtful?

“There are a lot of behaviors in the workplace that are positive when performed in moderation,” says Peterson. Taking on new challenges is tiring, for example, but employees may feel like the personal and professional growth that comes from occasional big pushes is worth some episodic stress or longer hours. For managers and employees alike, Petersen says, “It’s a very difficult task to figure out where that line is—where those behaviors flip over into being performative, or part of burnout culture, and become unsustainable or make work culture toxic.” 

“Of course, you want to create a high-performance culture where people get stuff done,” says Rauf. “But the way to do that is to increase visibility across your organization, which builds trust, and rewards people based on their output and the value they create.”

Combatting performative presenteeism

Set core collaboration hours: A climate of performative presenteeism can make it all but impossible for knowledge workers to find the time for focused creative work. To ensure a balance of collaborative engagement and uninterrupted problem-solving time, companies are experimenting with core work hours—preset days or times when employees agree to be available to field pings and emails and attend Zoom meetings.

Practice asynchronous communication—at all levels: One way to ease presenteeism is through asynchronous work, a system that encourages employees to complete their tasks when and where it works best for them.

For most companies, “asynch” requires making big cultural and technological changes. At Qatalog, that means lots of explicit communication from leaders at every level about cutting out meetings and focusing on results over input. 

“From a technology perspective, we run the company using Qatalog, which has been intentionally designed to facilitate asynchronous working,” says Rauf. “It makes information visible across our org, documents information naturally, reduces the volume of notifications and enables self-service of most information needs—all of which makes it significantly easier to work asynchronously.” 

With no set hours and fewer meetings and real-time conversations, Rauf says employees have fewer opportunities and less of a need to demonstrate how hard they’re working. 

But Qatalog and Github’s report identified a digital presenteeism divide between senior and junior employees: Nearly three-quarters (74%) of C-suite respondents said they work asynchronously “often” or “always,” followed by 48% of VPs and directors, 32% of managers and consultants, and 24% of analysts and administrators.  

“There’s no excuse for such an enormous disparity, and business leaders need to make much more effort to build a culture and provide the tools that enable asynchronous work for all,” Rauf says. 

Lead by example: Finally, Petersen says executives and managers must lead by example to prove to their employees that it’s safe to be offline during the workday to focus on a challenging task, to take PTO, and to have lives outside of work. One of Petersen’s prior managers insisted he didn’t need to know when or why she would be offline for a few hours during the workday. 

“But what I needed him to do for me to actually believe him was to model that by being offline himself sometimes, to show that it was really OK,” she says. 

Presenteeism resources