Imagine getting up in the morning and feeling completely unmotivated to go to work. It has been a difficult week, work has been piling up, and you could do with a day off to refresh your batteries, but you feel like you need to go because there is a looming deadline, and you are the only person with the right skills for the job. This is the beginning of presenteeism.
You go to work, but you feel like nothing is going according to plan. You notice you are making mistakes due to a lack of concentration, and even interacting with co-workers feels like a chore. You struggle until the end of the day, knowing that you will have to go through the same grind tomorrow.
You think that maybe you ought to call in sick tomorrow, but you fear that you may let your colleagues down, and that calling in sick may hurt your chances of getting that promotion you’ve been working so hard for. You decide to persevere against your better judgement.
Does this sound familiar to you, or do you know a colleague who has experienced this? Then you, or your colleague, have fallen victim to presenteeism. In layman’s terms, presenteeism is being on the job, but not able to fully function because of an illness or medical condition.
A study by GCC Marketing found that while employees were absent from work for an average of four days per year each, they confessed to being unproductive on the job for 57.5 days each. It is therefore not strange that presenteeism costs the USA up to 150 billion USD a year.
While a costly problem in and of itself, when left unchecked presenteeism can cause employees to burn out–when chronic stress leads to mental and physical exhaustion. Burnout causes employees to lose motivation and to detach from their work. This in turn can lead to short term even long term disability claims (which cost US companies ~$550 Billion/year).
According to the APEC health working group the cumulative global impact of mental illness in terms of lost economic output between 2011 and 2030 will amount to 16.3 trillion USD. It is therefore paramount that we learn to spot when an employee may feel like falling over that edge, and learn how to provide support to reel them back in.
Specifically we will look at how to prevent employee burnout to tackle employee presenteeism. We’ll cover:
- Implementing strategies to spot burnout and presenteeism
- Shaping a workplace that can effectively handle absenteeism
- Removing policies that promote presenteeism
As always, this post is based on over 30 papers on burnout, presenteeism, and job demands-resources, pulled from the field of Health Psychology and Organizational Psychology.
Quick refresher on burnout
It may come as no surprise that, in this day and age, we expect more and more from our employees. From 1-day shipping (or even same day shipping), to 24/7 customer service, there is a constant need for employees to be on their toes. Even in the non 24/7 services, commitment and attendance play an important role in performance appraisals.
Deloitte’s 2015 external workplace well-being survey found that that one-third of employees do not feel comfortable taking vacation time.
It should therefore come as no surprise that more and more employees are burning out.
Before we look into tackling burnout, it is first important to have a brief refresher of what burnout exactly is.
In technical terms, burnout is a syndrome that consists of three distinct parts:
- Emotional Exhaustion — the key component, characterized by mental fatigue and being emotionally drained
- Feelings of depersonalization (i.e. cynicism)
- Awareness of reduced personal accomplishment
Emotional exhaustion in itself has been shown to predict further health problems, but also adverse organizational outcomes such as poor job performance, turnover intentions, and may even lead to unsafe work conditions.
Emotional exhaustion and the Job Demands Resource model:
According to the Job Demands Resource model, each work environment has its own set factors that affect our health and motivation–called job resources and job demands.
Job resources are typically what employees view as helpful physical, social, or organizational aspects of the job. These are resources that help workers achieve their goals, reduce job demands, and stimulate personal growth and development. Examples include social support from colleagues, constructive feedback from supervisors, or the autonomy to plan your own workload.
Job demands on the other hand refer to what employees view as the physical, psychological, or organizational aspects of the job that require sustained physical or psychological effort. Examples include having a physical job (e.g. heavy lifting), high work pressure, conflicts with your colleagues or customers, or a looming feeling of job insecurity.
The model states that high job demands exhaust the mental and physical resources of employees, and can thereby lead to poor health. Please take note that these job demands do not necessarily have to be negative, but job demands may turn into job stressors when they require additional effort before the employee has adequately recovered from previous work events.
Presenteeism, exhaustion, and the “Loss Spiral” to burnout
In short, presenteeism–being at work despite mental or physical health conditions that make it difficult to be productive–leads to less energy to deal with job demands, which leads to an accumulation of job demands, which in turn lead to mental exhaustion and less energy to deal with these demands. That is, presenteeism trapping workers into a loss spiral. If unbroken, the employee will keep engaging in more presenteeism until he/she is burned out.
So if we want to prevent employees from burning out, a good place to start is by breaking this cycle by targeting antecedents of presenteeism.
How to address presenteeism to prevent employees from burning out
So how can you help stop the loss spiral? We will first take a look at how to spot the signs of presenteeism and burnout. Then we will look at strategies to implement at a team level to effectively handle absenteeism. Lastly we will look at how to replace policies that encourage presenteeism.
Spot signs of presenteeism and burnout
Know the signs. When trying to spot signs of presenteeism, it is important to remember that employees engage in presenteeism in order to cope with high job demands. The first step when you expect that an employee is engaging in presenteeism is therefore to look for signs that indicate that an employee is struggling to keep up with the work pace.
This may differ from employee to employee, but generally look for signs of an employee:
- Making more mistakes than usual
- Producing work of a low standard
- Low productivity
- Lack of care about results
- Arriving late/leaving early
- Conversely, missing lunch breaks/working long hours
- Working whilst sick
- Looking tired/exhausted
Train line managers to spot first signs of mental health issues, and provide them training in how to engage with employees who have mental health issues. The quicker you take note, the higher the chance that the negative effects can be ameliorated.
Watch people who tie their identity to their work, and consider anonymous surveys. Despite the fact that people can engage in presenteeism indiscriminately, it seems that people who base their self-esteem on individual performance have an increased risk. This focus on individuality and achievement seems to be more prevalent among young workers. It has, for instance, been shown to be a main factor underlying the rise of stress-related and mental health problems among young people in Sweden.
Even if you don’t spot any overt signs in your department, it may be a good idea to gauge presenteeism in your department by using an anonymous survey such as the Stanford Presenteeism Scale-6. Employees might be willing to admit they are struggling anonymously, even if they feel uncomfortable doing so in person.
If the results indicate that presenteeism indeed is a big problem among your employees it may be a good idea to focus on workplace aspects that can reduce an employee’s urge to engage in presenteeism. This brings us to the next strategy, namely create a workplace that can deal with absenteeism.
Create a workplace that can effectively handle absenteeism
Research shows that a lack of backup (e.g. due to lean staffing, or highly specialized skills), and the extent to which work has to be made up upon return from time off play an important part in why employees engage in presenteeism. When employees feel that the work is piling up, they are more inclined to come to work when they are ill. Our main takeaway from this should be:
1. Make employees replaceable
Use career development as a tool to increase knowledge in your team. Let employees periodically shift roles within a team. Let coworkers experience or engage in tasks that they normally would not do.
In addition to allowing employees to grow in terms of authority (i.e. managerial positions), encourage them to grow in terms of subject matter, allowing them to expand their skill set (i.e. horizontal development). Aside from ensuring your team can fully function even if a member is unavailable, offering development opportunities has been shown to decrease both absenteeism and presenteeism, as it instills a sense of job security.
2. Allow employees more freedom on how to do their job
Allowing employees more freedom on how to complete their work tasks reduces job demands, as they will have more control over the workload at any given time. Moreover, aside from reducing presenteeism, data shows that employees take fewer sick days when they are able to control their work tasks.
3. Be attentive and approachable, especially during times of high workload
When you notice signs of presenteeism in an employee, it is important to address them. Show your concern. Make time to talk with your employee about what is troubling them and how you can help.
If you want to be attentive to your employees’ well-being, it is also important to remain in the loop. Set up a weekly lunch meeting with your workgroup where employees can voice their problems. Talk openly about your own struggles. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable will increase the chance that your employees will too.
Remove policies that promote presenteeism
Lastly there are some common policy practices that promote presenteeism behavior in employees. These trigger points tend to stem from over-prioritizing efficiency during times of high work pressure, and from over-controlling sick leave.
Work-time arrangements. Specifically, it seems that presenteeism is very sensitive to working-time arrangements. Presenteeism tends to be increased in the following cases:
- mismatch between desired and actual working hours,
- shift or period work,
- overlong work weeks, and even
- permanent full-time work weeks.
Of course different working time arrangements are needed for different business models, but it is advised to try to minimize working overtime. While overtime may lead to some short-term gains, the cost of presenteeism outweighs the benefits due to less efficient work. If you do need to resort to overtime, it is highly advised to compensate this overtime with reduced hours the following week.
Sick leave policies. Moreover, an over controlling policy with regard to sickness absenteeism (i.e., sick leave)–for instance requiring that every sick day should be corroborated with a doctor’s certificate or that sick days must be made up–leads to higher levels of presenteeism. People tend to have a variety of reasons that prevent them from going to the doctor or being able to make up for time off.
While it requires more confidence in your employees, it seems that if employees are eligible for 3 paid sick days/year, without having to provide a sickness certificate, they will work less often while sick. What is more interesting, is that this policy does not tend to lead to higher levels of sickness/absenteeism.
Recap on 3 strategies to prevent burnout by tackling employee presenteeism
Burnout can be a major cost for your organization and your employees’ well-being. It is therefore paramount that we do whatever possible to prevent employees from burning out.
By actively identifying presenteeism and developing practices that discourage presenteeism, we can reduce employees burnout.
Just make sure to:
- Spot signs of employee presenteeism by:
- Training line managers to spot signs of presenteeism and to engage with employees who have mental health issues
- Keeping an eye on high-risk workers and using anonymous surveys such as the SPS-6 to gauge presenteeism in your department
- Create a workplace that can effectively handle absenteeism by:
- Making employees replaceable
- Allowing employees more freedom on how to do their job
- Being attentive and approachable, especially during times of high workload
- Remove policies that promote presenteeism by:
- Trading in efficiency for employee wellbeing
- Allowing employees no-questions-asked paid sickness absence
If you have employees who are experiencing burnout problems please refer them to our extensive post on burnout recovery. For individual tips on preventing burnout please refer to our extensive post on preventing work burnout.