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Presenteeism is Scary - Here Are 7 Things You Can Do About It

Heidi Erdmann-Sullivan on October 24, 2017 10:30 AM

It’s silent, elusive and lurking right around the corner.  It often goes undetected - sneaking through the halls, under the radar, all the while eating away at the wellbeing and productivity of your organization.  It’s presenteeism - and it’s a whole lot scarier than we think. In fact, one estimate puts the loss of productivity due to presenteeism at $1,500 billion per year in the U.S. alone – that’s 10 times costlier than absenteeism.  And a recent report revealed that employees admit to an average 57.5 unproductive days each year– nearly three months’ worth of time.  

While presenteeism, or "working while sick" as it was originally defined, is still largely linked to loss of productivity due to employee health and medical issues, the definition has broadened in recent years.  New workplace distractions, the demands of a digitized, warp-speed life at both home and work, and stress and anxiety stemming from financial challenges and the needs of family are among the most prevalent, added causes of presenteeism today.  We’re checked out, stressed out and more disengaged than ever before. 

At the core of an anti-presenteeism strategy should be the benefits and policies that understand and support the health and medical needs of your employees – both in treatment and prevention.  But, there are many other areas where we can help combat the productivity-draining culprits we face at work today.  Here are seven to consider:

  1. Encourage your employees to prioritize sleep
    There's a lot of new – and alarming – sleep-related research being published today. From Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global sleep initiatives (note: add phone bed charging stations to list of employee holiday gifts this year) to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine going to American researchers’ work on the circadian rhythm, sleep talk is everywhere. We’re not sleeping enough, nor are we getting the quality of sleep our bodies and minds need to function – and live.  Check out the National Health Sleep Awareness Project for education and inspiration for your own workplace-led inititiaves.  And encourage employees to make use of sleep-related features on their wearables, and to check out the best new sleep apps
  2. Enable introspection
    We run around crazy most days, multi-tasking at an unprecedented rate, and often prioritize the needs of everyone and everything else above our own. We’re not only short-circuiting our brains in the process, but losing sight of what really brings us fulfillment and joy.  Consider asking employees to complete a simple, formal exercise at work to think introspectively about their purpose and what makes them feel rewarded at work and in life.  Even if it’s a simple, 3-question quiz like the one this Forbes article recommends for getting employees started on the quest for personal (and professional) enlightenment. 
  3. Put employee engagement at the top of the list
    It’s all about employee engagement these days. And with good reason.  Engaged employees make for happier, healthier individuals and more productive, profitable organizations.  In fact, those with engaged employees bring in two and a half times the revenue vs. those with low engagement rates.  Partner with leadership and other key stakeholders to devise a formal engagement strategy from the top down, focusing on company culture and brand, training and career development initiatives, job satisfaction and workplace wellness. 

    RELATED: 10 Key Questions to Ask about Your HR-Brand Partnership

  4. Train your managers about presenteeism – and prioritize their own wellbeing
    Your managers are on the front lines. Not only do they need to be well - and engaged – to perform at their personal best, but also to have the mindset to identify presenteeism issues within their immediate teams.  Add the health and wellbeing of your managers to your list of presenteeism priorities, and give them formal, regular training about its potential impact on individuals, their team and the company.  Make sure they know what resources are available to them in facing the issue - and provide a clear process for managing and escalating – if needed – presenteeism issues.  
  5. Help employees boost their financial wellness
    Earlier this year, SHRM projected that 2017 would be the year of financial wellness programs. This followed several significant studies showing that financial stress was a major burden across all generations. A 2016 PwC Employee Financial Wellness Survey revealed 52 percent of all workers are stressed about their finances and 46 percent spend three or more hours during the work week dealing with or thinking about financial issues.  Those companies beginning to invest more in financial education and counseling for their employees are not only seeing higher productivity and engagement rates, but also greater employer loyalty.
  6. Offer solutions for greater family wellbeing
    The 2017 Cost of Care Survey revealed that 73 percent of working parents say their job has been affected because of child care plans falling through at the last minute, with 64 percent having to use sick days and 54 percent being late to work as a result.  Eighty-five percent of respondents also said they wished their employer provided child care benefits.  By providing family care benefits like backup care and senior care planning, employers can help ease worries, eliminate unnecessary distractions, and keep working parents not only physically present, but also productive.
  7. Invite a little digital detox
    With the support of leadership, create some company-wide recommendations for healthy phone etiquette at work. Maybe it’s instituting phone-free meetings or regular, fully unplugged social gatherings. Encourage employees to choose a regular, daily block of time in their work chedule where their phones aren’t just silenced, but out of sight in a desk drawer.  Or, institute a formal, company-wide challenge: a 30-day digital detox, like the one developed by the author of The Power of Off, Nancy Colier.

While presenteeism is a scary issue for all employers, with the potential for serious productivity loss, there is hope.  Unlike absenteeism, where employees aren't even making it to work, presenteeism gives you a second chance to re-engage your present - though oftentimes, drained and distracted - individuals.  The number of programs and mechanisms your organization can use to support and engage its employees only continues to grow.  Find those that fit for your company - and start helping your employees out of the dark shadows of presenteeism.  

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Heidi Erdmann-Sullivan

As Director, Sales and Marketing at, Heidi is responsible for developing innovative, results-driven programs for Care@Work – a consumer-centered portfolio of family care for employers and their diverse workforce. Passionate about helping HR professionals improve the lives of their employees, Heidi follows and writes about the top trends and research impacting both employees and employers in the workplace, including the future of work, consumerism and HR, building employer brands, pay equity and paid leave policy, and company culture. Prior to joining, Heidi led marketing teams at a variety of technology companies including Constant Contact. She lives north of Boston with her husband Brian and their “daughter” Lexi – a 10 lb. Shih-Tzu therapy dog.