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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Is "Presenteeism" a modern-day pandemic?

We have all heard of the term "Absenteeism" (used to describe the problems associated with employees being unnecessarily absent from work) but there's a new term on the block called: "Presenteeism". It may be a catchy term, but it’s more than just a gimmick.

Presenteeism is a complex issue. The most common use of the term is to highlight the problems caused by the growing number of people who feel compelled to turn up when they are actually too ill to work. It seems that the requirement for an unblemished sickness record has become more critical than the need for people to be fit for the job. Indeed, survey data from 39,000 UK workers presented by business psychology company Robertson Cooper, showed that a quarter of the people sampled struggle into work, despite feeling ill.

There are always going to be people who chance their luck and who 'play the system' at work. They'll know exactly how many days they can get away with taking off, and which ‘illnesses’ are relatively difficult to confirm (such as back pain and migraine). However, it is troubling if the minority have gradually been allowed to tarnish the rest of the workplace to the extent that those who are genuinely unfit for work are actually afraid they will lose their jobs if they ‘go off-sick'. So there's our modern-day dilemma: If you're genuinely not feeling well (through illness or stress) then you're both criticised for "taking a sickie" and criticised for dragging yourself into work. You just can't win!

Professor Ivan Robertson, managing director at Robertson Cooper, has said: "Presenteeism in the workplace has a number of causes, one of which is related to feelings of job insecurity. Recently, this is likely to have been inflamed as a result of the recession." The problem of presenteeism, it seems to me, is partly to do with job insecurity (as suggested by Prof. Robertson), but also to do with a fundamental lack of trust, honesty, accountability, and motivation in the workplace...

Where there's a general lack of trust between management and 'the workers', even the honest, hardworking employees find the decision to take a day off work extremely difficult. Any health or stress management expert will agree that being brave and keeping going until the weekend or until our next holiday is more often than not, a poor health choice. When we work through an illness we're not only jeopardising our own recovery and long-term health, but we're also potentially spreading germs to our colleagues and we are at higher risk of making costly mistakes.

So what about the issues of 'accountability' and 'motivation'? To me, there's another more worrying form of presenteeism which is about those people who feel entitled to their pay packet, no matter how much effort they put in, or what results they achieve. It's simply about turning up to work and doing the bare minimum or not being caught falling short of the mark. I have concluded, both as a trainer/coach who hears hundreds of stories from managers and from front-line staff, as well as a discerning consumer, that this is an issue that's on the increase. How many times have you had an interaction with a service company, a shop or a business, and have been left feeling that the employee doesn't care at all about how you feel, what your experience has been, or whether or not you will remain a customer? And how many times have you been shocked by people in service roles, who see nothing wrong in chatting to each other whilst serving you, or in covering their own backs rather than offering you a little empathy? I don't think it's just me noticing it more as I get older! It really feels that increasing numbers of people simply don't care less anymore.

My answer to this is that we need to help people in these roles to care more. We need to stop rewarding people with a guaranteed salary just as long as they turn up. We need more constructive, proactive management that spells out the expectations and that shares the responsibility for creating and maintaining their team's motivation to a good job. Ultimately, we need managers to enable individuals to feel truly accountable for their own performance.

Can you imagine the uproar if everyone overnight only got paid what they were worth? Now there's a thought! Some people would probably end up having to reimburse their employers... This may be a crazy daydream by one disgruntled consumer, but as Professor Ivan Robertson suggests: "To prevent presenteeism, managers should reward people for the work they deliver, not the hours they put in. Investing in the health and wellbeing of workers pays dividends in terms of improved employee engagement and productivity. And it delivers considerable savings over and above those caused by driving down absenteeism." I couldn’t agree more, Professor Robertson!

So, have you got any examples of how presenteeism in any of its forms has affected you or your business? Or perhaps you recognise some of your own behaviour leaning towards presenteeism. I’d love to hear your stories. Why does presenteeism exist, and is it getting worse? And if you have any sensible suggestions about how to tackle it, do let me know!

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