Opinion

Coping with ‘Presenteeism’

With cold and flu season upon us, some interesting challenges for employers and employees alike arise. ‘Presenteeism,’ a newly coined term which means being present at work while sick or for some other reason disengaged from your assigned work, can be extremely detrimental to organizations and their workforce.

Traditionally, the focus of most organizations has been on absenteeism and the opportunities lost when an employee isn’t at work. This focus, however, assumes that when people are at work they are productive. Unfortunately, many times, this is simply an illusion.

According to a recent survey by OfficeTeam, a staffing service based in Menlo Park, Calif., 80% of employees polled frequently show up to work while sick; with only a mere 8% of the respondents reporting they never come into the office when ill. Performance levels of sick individuals are rarely at peak or even at an acceptable level.

In fact, employees who come to work when they are ill may be costing employers more in lost productivity than their employers pay for sick days and other medical and disability benefits. In 2004, Cornell University cited in WebMD that presenteeism may account for up to 60% of employer health costs, and found that up to 60% of the total cost of employee illnesses come from people who continue to work despite illnesses that reduce their productivity.

Morale and contagion are also concerns associated with ‘presenteeism.’ Being in contact with contagious individuals jeopardizes the health and productivity of all employees. According to CCH Inc., a division of Wolters Kluwer, a provider of employment law information and software, organizations with already-low employee morale are at even greater risk of sick workers on the job, with 52% of companies with poor or fair morale reporting presenteeism as a problem.

But presenteeism isn’t just limited to physical illness such as allergies, headaches, colds, or flu. Burnout, stress, and depression from work/life or work-related conflicts also contribute to loss of productivity while on the job. These causes may include emotional problems, family issues, elder or child care concerns, employee vs. employer distrust, overwork, or workplace distractions ranging from heat, light, or air quality, communication breakdowns, lack of training, and many other variables.

Curing the Problem

Employers can take steps to discourage presenteeism and enhance productivity. During cold and flu season, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends individuals to stay home when they are sick. It also provides helpful tips and posters that can be displayed within the workplace. Employers can also create guidelines to help the workforce understand the conditions for staying home, when it is safe to return to work, and when to re-evaluate a company’s absenteeism policies.

The single most common absence-control program utilized by 91% of organizations surveyed by CCH is disciplinary action. This approach is counterproductive to helping sick workers stay home when they are ill, especially when one considers that most of these programs allow five sick days per year and one bad cold or flu can wipe an individual out for that same amount of time or longer.

An alternative to traditional sick day policies is paid leave banks, also known as Paid Time Off (PTO) programs. Under a PTO program, personal, sick, and vacation days are combined into a single bank of days that the employee can use in any way he or she needs; allowing the employee to have more control.

Employers can also work to foster a healthy work environment and set a good example. A 2005 Workplace Productivity Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) states that poor management is the number-one factor hurting employee productivity. Therefore, managers need to be aware of how not only their words but their actions are being interpreted by employees. Are your employees comfortable in asking for time off when ill or for other necessary reasons?

What message are you sending when you come to work sick, injured, or distracted?
Employers should be sure to keep communication open with employees. With many companies experiencing lay-offs, relocation, and expecting employees to do more with less, job insecurity and overwork may compel employees to put in excessive work hours, many unproductive. This can then lead to stress, burnout, or illness.

Executive and business coaching programs can be very valuable in establishing effective communication throughout organizations and creating engaged and resilient workforces. Coaches work with management and staff to enhance performance, morale and productivity.

Besides coaching, employee assistance programs (EAPs), and other wellness or work/life balance programs offer employees assistance beyond cold and flu season by helping them maintain focus on work while at work. EAPs provide confidential 24/7 counseling to employees and their families helping them to manage both physical and emotional concerns ranging from addictions to loss and grief.

Wellness programs, such as flu clinics, blood drives with free cholesterol screenings, etc., create opportunities for workers to receive preventative health benefits while at work. Something they may not otherwise take the time to do on their own and thus maintaining their health and welfare. Because of busy schedules, many work/life balance programs have been initiated that make services and/or resources easily accessible to employees so they can spend their time on work while at work. Child care, elder care, and financial concerns are among the myriad of issues addressed through these programs. Many times these work/life balance offerings can be provided at no cost to the organization.

Multiple Remedies

Just as there are many causes for presenteeism, there is no one solution.
Each organization and its workforce has different needs and requirements. These needs may shift with time, so it is important to re-evaluate your programs periodically. Get employees involved and ask for their input. No one enjoys being unproductive. Adopt healthy, flexible, positive work environments that meet the multitude of personal and professional challenges faced by employees. Investing in your employees will help alleviate this drain on your people, profits, and productivity.

Lynn Turner is an executive coach and owner of Ironweed Business Alliance, a coaching and consulting firm specializing in leadership development, team building and work/life balance strategies. She is also the host and producer of a local radio talk show/Web site Business Link Radio (www.businesslinkradio.com); (413) 283-7091.

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