How you get your employees to show up: Reducing absenteeism and presenteeism

Absenteeism and presenteeism are ubiquitous in the workplace, making a huge negative impact on the effectiveness of organizations. Absenteeism–when employees have an unscheduled absence–is related to a loss of around $2,450 USD per employee per year. Presenteeism–when employees are physically at work, but they aren’t actually working–is harder to quantify. But scholars argue that this lack of engagement can cut individual productivity by one-third or more! In short, absenteeism and presenteeism substantially reduce employee productivity, and therefore your bottom line. 

Does this mean employees are lazy? Absolutely not. In a study of 2004, the Harvard Business Review noted that presenteeism is not to be confused with malingering (pretending to be ill to avoid work) or just slacking off (deliberately putting off duties at work). Rather, it is about being unable to perform at the highest level due to real physical or mental health challenges

But how do you make sure that your employees show up, both physically and mentally? One way to do this is by creating a company culture in which healthy behaviors are valued and encouraged. Here, we will focus on four actionable steps to create such a culture. 

  1. Encourage a resilient mindset 
  2. Highlight the positive
  3. Mandate scheduling policies that promote health
  4. Lead by example 

As always, our researchers have sifted through dozens of research articles from social psychology, organizational psychology, and behavioral economics to bring you science backed tips and strategies.


Practices that promote mental and physical health

When employees are physically or mentally not at work, it’s easy to blame them. Perhaps you’ve found yourself labeling them lazy or assumed they must not value their work. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error–the tendency for us to blame behaviors on the person rather than fully consider their situation. 

But research shows that our situation and environment can strongly influence our behavior. Indeed, life stressors, mental health and physical health are among the biggest determinants of absenteeism and presenteeism. So here we’ll delve into 4 ways that you can create a work environment that promotes mental and physical wellbeing.

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Encourage a Resilient Mindset

Stress and depressive symptoms are common among employees, and can lead to burnout and disengagement at work. In fact, mental ill-health is estimated to account for ∼40% of all absences. 

A culture in which effective coping strategies and good mental health are promoted are therefore specifically relevant for tackling absenteeism and presentism. But how do you do this? Of course, there’s no single simple trick, but there are practices that you can promote that will contribute to a work environment that is inclusive, supportive, and healthy.

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Teaching resilience

It’s rare that successful people have a smooth run; you could say that one of the prerequisites for success is some hurdles along the way. It is normal that routines are broken every now and then (e.g., for sickness or family emergencies), and employees will face work disappointments (e.g., not reaching sales goals). 

However, it is key that disruptive events–even big ones, like company restructuring or personal tragedies–do not make employees feel overwhelmed or incapable. Instead, setbacks should be viewed as an opportunity to teach employees to overcome problems, build strength, and develop resilience. Because resilience is negatively related to voluntary absenteeism, resilient employees will be less prone to ‘give up’ or call in sick. It is therefore important to create an environment in which a resilience mindset is encouraged. 

One way to do this is by teaching employees to treat failures and setbacks as learning opportunities. As a manager, you have to show your employees that it is okay to fail, especially when you challenge yourself and learn from the experience. Consider:

  • Sharing personal experiences of difficult past times, during regular meetings or training sessions. This shows your employees that even their superiors have some hurdles along the way, and that it is important that you learn from these.
  • Openly sharing bad news and failures as they arise, while also discussing what can be learned from them and how you will move forward.
  • Organizing resilience groups that help employees express failures, discuss challenges and solutions, and provide support.

If you want to know more about how you can increase resilience within your employees, we advise you to take a look at one of our previous posts.


Highlight the positive

Excellent staff management begins by recognizing the good work done by employees. In general, positive psychology literature suggests that a focus on the positive (which boosts positive emotions) is linked with the benefits of improved health, well-being, longevity, and a greater quality of life. Identifying successes also helps maintain employees’ sense of self-efficacy, which is crucial for maintaining motivation and engagement.

One way to create a supportive work environment is to generate positive experiences. (For more ideas, check out our previous blog post on boosting psychological capital with the HERO formula).

One way to do this is to create a digital or physical fun board on which positive experiences–in general or work specific– are shared. The purpose is to create a positive, celebratory atmosphere. You could also make this more interactive by posting questions to incentivize helping behavior. You can follow up by celebrating collective success, for example by ordering a special lunch, organizing afterwork activities, or simply starting meetings by pointing out recent accomplishments.

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Mandate scheduling policies that promote health

Although it may seem like the physical health of your employees is out of your control, there are certainly steps you can take to encourage employees to make healthy decisions. Not only do these specific actions foster healthier choices, also the message that you send to your employees (we care about your health) will have a positive effect on them. Kill two birds with one stone!


Sick leave

Having a hard-line and aggressive sickness absence policy and workplace culture may do more harm than good. In addition to negatively affecting sick employees, it may encourage them to spread contagious illnesses to the rest of your team. Your (sickness absence) policies should be fair, reasonable, allow some flexibility, and be implemented in a fair way by managers.

Of course employees should feel free to go to the doctor if they experience physical discomfort–waiting for too long can even make it worse in some cases.


Mental health time off

Employees occasionally also need to unplug from work to relieve stress. Doing so can allow time to mentally and physically recover before issues turn into bigger problems or psychosomatic pain. In short, time off for wellbeing is crucial in order for employees to stay productive in the long run. 

However, many employees feel restrained in doing so. A study of the The Families and Work Institute showed that 25% of their participants said they never used their allotted vacation time, and of these people, 55% reported high stress levels from overworking. 

So how do you create a culture in which overworking is discouraged? One way is to mandate downtime or personal time off. This could take many forms, for example, you could: 

  • shut down the office and insist that employees take a long weekend off every quarter, work half-day on Fridays, or skip one Wednesday a month.
  • prohibit meetings during certain times (e.g., lunch time, mid-afternoon) to encourage employees to take small breaks or a walking lunch. 

In addition, you can promote work-life balance by offering flexible schedules or remote work options. Balancing a career with personal or family life can be challenging and it has a great impact on a persons’ satisfaction as well as on their sick leave. Often, employees feel compelled to take a sick day to accommodate other responsibilities they may have. A company culture that is supportive and facilitates employees in their planning will therefore positively contribute to employee productivity and absenteeism

So besides giving employees mandatory time off, you can leave some room for flexibility. Absenteeism becomes less of a problem when companies empower employees with flexible schedules in which they have the freedom to do their work when it suits them best.

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Lead by Example

You, yes you. Perhaps the best way to encourage healthy behavior in your organization is to lead by example. Organizations that want to boost employees’ health often provide discounts on gym memberships, mental health services, and other policies to encourage self-care like flexible scheduling. However, employees can feel uncomfortable taking advantage of these options. Thus, leadership must ensure that there is a supportive culture that shows that using these options is in the best interest for the both of you. 

But how do you do this? As a leader, people look to you to learn how to behave. That means that the behavior of the manager or supervisor sets norms that express unwritten rules that set expectations for how people are expected to behave. 

Therefore, by showing that you go on regular short breaks, take a walking lunch, or try a mindfulness course, you can lead by example. The norms you set can permeate the workplace and encourage people to make healthier decisions. 

As a manager you can model the behavior yourself, or encourage others to lead different initiatives. You could:

  • Set quick 5-minute reminders for your team members every 2 hours of staring at the computer. You could include simple instructions encouraging them to stand up, stretch their body, and rest their eyes by looking out of a window.
  • Take regular breaks to go out for walks yourself, and invite team members to join you (which will also foster team spirit)
  • Visibly participate in employee wellness initiatives. For example, if your department has a funboard for sharing personal or professional accomplishments, be sure to use it. And remember, you can participate in small ways like being excited about the new lunch options in the cafeteria. By doing so, you show that this kind of positive behavior is valued and encouraged.
  • Announce when you will be taking time off or using a flexible schedule.

As a leader, you have a special power to set norms. So be sure to show your employees that they really can make use of these options–just like you do.

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Engage (middle) management

Too often, the very managers upon whom organizations depend to create better cultures are themselves unhappy and unmotivated at work. The managers’ levels of engagement directly affects their teams, and in the US, the percentage of engaged employees nearly aligns with the percentages of engaged managers. This shows that engagement can be contagious. Focusing on middle management can therefore be an effective way to increase employee engagement across the board. 

One way to go at this is to also provide development opportunities for your leaders. Front-line managers and supervisors need to have jobs where they feel they are continuously developing. Managers and team leaders need to have coaching conversations with their manager, just like they are expected to with their employees. 

The best learning programs are not a compilation of isolated “events”, but rather teach fundamentals of coaching and focus on how strengths could be identified or developed. 

Using multiple modes of learning—like e-learning—can help do this. You can get creative when integrating training exercises into real life work experiences (e.g., try out a new negotiation style while recruiting).

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Recap on how you get your employees to show up: Reducing absenteeism and presenteeism

In sum, there are several ways you can reduce absenteeism and presenteeism at the workfloor. While you certainly can’t keep employees from claiming to be sick, you can create an organizational culture in which responsible use of paid time off is encouraged. 

By creating a supportive environment and providing employees with role models, they are much more likely to deal with health challenges or personal obligations during work hours. You can tackle these problems by focussing on the following aspects. 

  1. Encourage a resilient mindset by sharing setbacks and rewarding learning
  2. Highlight the positive with public acknowledgement
  3. Mandate scheduling policies that promote health, including fair paid leave and flexible scheduling
  4. Lead by example–both you and middle management.