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Beware of Presenteeism - a Sign of Ineffiency!

The term “presenteeism” has been used widely in management magazines recently. It describes a situation in which we show up to work in a state where we are not able to work (physically or psychologically). It is omitting to absent oneself, even if we have a good reason to do so. According to the experts, it’s a common phenomenon that is spreading on the workplace. 

Presenteeism is the result of the valorization of diligence at work aimed at reducing absenteeism, in comparison to which it is still excessive – proportionally and inversely opposed. It is the flipside of the coin.

Presenteeism in All its Forms

Martin Lauzier and Éric Gosselin, of the Université du Québec en Outaouais, LAUZIER M. et É. GOSSELIN. (L’ABC du présentéisme : le côté obscur de la présence au travail, Effectif, vol. 14, n° 3, 2011.) have identified different factors weighing in on the choice of coming to work at all costs. They include: 

  • Physical presenteeism – when one had physical limitations (eg. a respiratory problem) and secondary symptoms
  • Psychological presenteeism – when there are limits to one’s productivity (eg. depression)
  • Voluntary presenteeism – when one chooses to come to work regardless of his condition due to his sense of responsibility
  • Periodic presenteeism – when one has a temporary illness or condition (eg. the flu)
  • Chronic presenteeism – when the condition has repeated manifestations (following a health problem requiring convalescence or due to a chronic illness, such as arthritis)

Why Does One Go to Work When Sick?

  • Some go to work with migraines or backaches, not to be martyrs or victims, but due to a sense of duty.
  • Others suffering from depression, burnouts, or anxiety but do not dare talk about it from fear of being stigmatized and report to work each morning, acting as if nothing is wrong. 
  • Some say they do no have a choice, as they won’t get paid or would compromise their job security.
  • Some firmly believe that the organization needs them. 
  • Some wish to keep their sick days in order to take care of their children when they fall ill. 
  • Some get satisfaction at work and feel the need to go at all costs. 
  • Some go to work because the unfinished tasks just pile up during absences, and they don’t dare missing a day. 

The gravity of presenteeism can only be measured by its duration. Most of the time, presenteeism is short-term, often only a few days. There are reasons to worry when an ill employee comes to work for two weeks, a month, or more. Long term, omitting to take the time to care of ourselves worsens the problem. 

Beyond the Limit of Definition

The definition of presenteeism itself requires that there be “presence of a health problem” – psychological or physiological – entailing reporting to work even when ill. However, based on experience, there is an ever subtler form of presenteeism with an indicator one should give proper attention to, as it is precursory to presenteeism. I often observe it among participants in Time and Priority Management training sessions – an excessive presence at work! Often, they confuse efficiency and effectiveness. 

They say that: 

  • They do not have enough time to do everything.
  • They have strict deadlines to observe. 
  • They have big responsibilities. 
  • They do overtime. 
  • They stay late at night. 
  • They come in early in the morning to be able to work in peace. 
  • They send or receive emails on evenings and weekends (and even on vacation). 
  • They answer enquiries and requests outside of office hours. 
  • They take work home. 
  • They connect themselves from outside of the office.
  • They work while they eat lunch. 
  • They can always be reached on the cellphone. 
  • … and they are overwhelmed with work! 

These people are not sick. However, pushed by a desire to prove themselves, to look good, or by a fear of losing their job, by devotion to their responsibilities, by a feeling of guilt, by loyalty to their organization or by a simple love for their work, they unconsciously favor quantity to quality. They adhere to a culture where the value of their work depends on the number of hours invested. But this omnipresence does not guarantee performance! 

The Ilich law states that beyond a certain threshold, human effectiveness decreases, or becomes negative. After 90 minutes of continuous concentration, we are no longer effective. Ideally, we should take a 15-minute break (relaxing, taking a walk, going out for fresh air, etc.) before going back to work. However, even after taking these breaks, we cannot work restlessly for 12 hours a day. For some, it’s their modus operandi, their way of doing things and not a temporary or unusual situation. 

A Last Word

The added value we offer as a worker does not reside in the number of hours we work, but in our ability to be proactive rather than reactive, to take initiative and decisions, to think outside the box and get out of our comfort zone, to be creative in our ability to solve problems. In short, it’s all about the quality of our work! 

When we persist being too present, we risk being less effective, less focused, more prone to make mistakes and finally demotivated and disengaged due to the fact we are exhausted. Professional overinvestment results in a general increase of the stress level and in a decrease of the productivity level. It increases risks of professional exhaustion. 

Presenteeism, in all its forms, greatly contributes to the deterioration of work performance and quality and causes ineffectiveness. Its secondary effects are preoccupying, as its collateral damage is silent and will guide us to the flipside of the coin – absenteeism! 

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