Is Presenteeism Harming Productivity?

4 min Article
A workplace that treats employees like individuals with emotions, rather than a productivity tool, will have greater success because they are putting the individual first.
Is Presenteeism Harming Productivity?

Back in school, at least in India, teachers would hurl a piece of chalk at anyone dozing off during class. “Physically present, mentally absent!” was often the phrase used by them while reprimanding students. But, was this phenomenon seen only in schools? It may be a surprise to you, but it’s a common scenario at workplaces, known as “presenteeism.”


When employees continue to work through sickness, grief, or stress and contribute to work sub-optimally, it is called presenteeism. However, there’s another way to look at presenteeism. Manpower Group recently reported that almost 73% millennials across the world work for more than 40 hours a week. Indian millennials top the list with 52 hours a week, according to the report. When employees work such long hours, burnout and falling short of deadlines increase. While being physically unwell is easy to spot, not feeling well due to high stress is a blind spot.

Causes of presenteeism

The possible causes of presenteeism could be a toxic work culture. Common stressors that create an environment of toxicity are attributed to:

• Reduced job security

• The notion that employees are less committed if they avail sick leaves

• Managers reaching out to get work done during PTO (Paid/Personal Time Off)

• Managers who say “I’m sorry, you haven’t been feeling well, but this work needs to be done by tomorrow”

• Constant communication with peers. This is where employers don’t set boundaries and communicate at all hours of the day, expecting employees to respond and take action instantly

• Employee ego, where there is the notion of being indispensable for the team or the company

• Financial stress that creates the need to either earn more at any cost, or save the flow of current income. Worrying about financial matters distracts the mind and reduces focus

• Preoccupation with personal commitments. This often occurs when employees are busy making personal calls at work and are constantly disturbed due to family issues, social demands, and personal interests

How does presenteeism affect productivity?

Lack of focus can impact the critical decision making and creative thinking of an individual. Long working hours and stress can lead to burnout, causing employees to make mistakes at work, be less productive, work ineffectively and inefficiently. As per a research study by ACOEM, 70% of depression-related productivity loss can be attributed to presenteeism, while the other 30% comes from absenteeism.

All these factors multiplied by the number of employees, and the number of reasons for presenteeism, can cause a massive blow to productivity, leading to loss of time and company money. A Global Corporate Challenge study estimates presenteeism costs companies an equivalent of three months of lost productivity in a year.

Three ways to tackle presenteeism

The need of the hour is to break the vicious cycle of stress and presenteeism. Some ways to improve on this for a better work ethic are:

1. Inculcate a healthy work culture

A culture that encourages trust and communication for employees to discuss their problems easily with managers is a constructive strategy. A culture that monitors performance based on deliverables rather than hours spent on the clock is more sustainable. Allow employees to take regular breaks from work and enforce reasonable working hours. Encourage employees to take leave when necessary. Establish a positive support structure for management to have one-on-one sessions with their employees regularly. Spot signs of trouble and take immediate action to help them.

2. Introduce policies discouraging both presenteeism and absenteeism

Most leave policies mistake employee presence at workplace for productivity, while trying to discourage absenteeism. However, presenteeism poses an equal risk for the company as well as employee health. It is important to spot the causes of low productivity and sub-optimal performance. Once policies are approved, it’s important to reiterate and reinforce them periodically so that employees take leave when needed, and not as a means of escape from their job duties.

3. Incorporate wellbeing and Employee Assistance Programs

It might be interesting to note that ACOEM combined the economic toll from presenteeism and absenteeism. It was found that hypertension, heart disease, and mental illness were the most prevalent disorders and contributed to the economic toll. Based on average impairment and prevalence estimates, the overall economic burden of illness was highest for hypertension ($392 per eligible employee per year), with heart disease ($368) and depression and other mental illnesses ($348) not far behind. Presenteeism ranked higher than medical costs in most cases, and represented 18% to 60% of all costs.

Companies can lower these expenses by focusing on employee wellbeing and offering Employee Assistance Programs. An EAP helps employees address their physical and psychological issues with expert help. Early intervention helps them reduce overall stress and psychological distress at multiple levels. A workplace that treats employees wholistically, giving due importance to their emotions, tends to perform better as the workforce feels more valued and is more engaged.

Cover image sourced from Shutterstock

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Prakriti Bhat

Prakriti Bhat

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