The Avoidable Cost of Presenteeism
By Daniel N. Jolivet, PhD, Workplace Possibilities Practice Consultant, The Standard
While most absence and disability managers are familiar with the costs of absenteeism — an estimated $150 billion annually — some might not realize that employee presenteeism can cost 10 times more.1 Presenteeism refers to the impaired performance of employees who are working though unable to do their best, and it’s frequently caused by illness, injury, or other factors that can compromise productivity or work quality. While most presenteeism is caused by chronic medical conditions such as allergies, diabetes, behavioral health disorders, migraines and severe headaches, and musculoskeletal conditions, pain is cited as the largest cause of presenteeism.2,3
Barriers to reducing presenteeism include employee fears that disclosing conditions might have negative repercussions on employment; lack of awareness that reasonable accommodations exist; and unfamiliarity with available resources, especially employer-sponsored benefits.
Employers can have a positive influence on presenteeism caused by medical issues by implementing strategic outreach, targeted communication and by considering whether their culture encourages a sense of psychological safety.
The most important strategy to decrease presenteeism caused by medical conditions is to encourage employees to disclose work limitations, which relies on, and helps nurture, a feeling of psychological safety.4 A willingness to engage with employees, express concern, and offer help is particularly significant for chronic medical conditions that may not be visible to supervisors. On the flip side of that equation, employees who fear being stigmatized or humiliated if they are unable to perform at an optimal level are likely to conceal problems they are experiencing.
For example, a manager noted an argument between two workers during the first week the office reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic. One employee became extremely upset, and the manager asked that employee to come to her office. Once there, she noted that he seemed more upset than the situation merited and asked how she could help. He disclosed extreme anxiety about being in the office, particularly because he had two family members who had died of COVID-19. She reminded him of the company’s employee assistance program, or EAP, benefits, gave him a copy of the EAP brochure, and offered to call the EAP with him if that would be helpful. This type of outreach can help managers intervene in appropriate ways and help employees feel supported.5
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