Employment Sections

Out of Focus

Presenteeism Is a Growing Workplace Challenge

Bob Oldenberg

Bob Oldenberg says that in an era of two-income households, parents are bringing more stress and anxiety with them to the workplace.

Everyone knows what absenteeism is — staying home from work due to sickness or some other reason. Not everyone has heard of its counterpart, presenteeism — but anyone can understand the concept, which is basically coming to work but being too sick, distracted by personal issues, or just plain disinterested to get much done. It’s a major cost to employers — and a growing problem, as technology provides new ways to waste time on the job. While it’s impossible to eliminate presenteeism entirely, some human-resources experts say effective communication between management and workers can reduce its impact.

Virtually everyone has shown up at work under the weather, with nagging allergies, a nasty cold, or a more serious chronic condition.
Or they’ve spent the workday anxiously fretting over their failing marriage, their kids’ failing grades, or their parents’ failing health.
Or they’re just, well, failing to get anything done, arriving at the office more in the mood to post on Facebook and text their friends than earn the money they’re being paid.
All of these situations fall under the umbrella of presenteeism, which is a term not everyone has heard, yet is a concept anyone can understand.
Originally, presenteeism signified the opposite of absenteeism, explained Sandy Reynolds, executive vice president of the Employer’s Resource Group at Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). “It meant somebody who came to work when they were sick because they wouldn’t get paid at home. And there is a cost to having people come to work when they’re sick, in terms of reduced productivity.
“Over time,” she continued, “in the business community, the definition has been expanded to people who are at work who are either not well or distracted by child-care issues, elder-care issues, marital problems, discipline issues with their kids — in general, people who are coming to work but are not fully productive because of some health-related or family-related issue.”
And for employers, it’s a monumentally costly issue. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, absenteeism costs U.S. companies $118 billion annually in medical expenses and lost productivity. But presenteeism — stemming from illness, stress, family and personal issues, and what the society calls an “entitlement mentality” — costs companies an estimated $180 million.
Other estimates are even higher, and most studies admit that it’s not an easy number to pin down. And it’s not a problem that can ever be totally eradicated — as long as human beings, and not machines, are doing the work.
“Many times in the traditional work world, things are happening in our lives that are out of our control,” said Patricia Guenette, vice president of Human Resources for Square One, the Springfield-based early-education provider. “They could be marital issues, financial issues, educational issues — a variety of things can happen in everyday life, regardless of your status.”
If this broader definition of presenteeism is a relatively new concept, that’s partly due to the fact that today’s professionals bring more personal baggage with them to work because no one’s at home to focus on these issues.
“In very many families, both parents are working,” said Bob Oldenburg, director of the Baystate Employee Assistance Program in Springfield, a department of Baystate Health.
“If you look back a generation ago, you typically had a working father and a mom at home, which freed up the dad to focus on work,” he continued. “Those days are long gone; even in intact families, quite often both people are breadwinners in order maintain a certain standard of living, and that creates pressure because neither may be available to deal with what’s going on at home.”
Reynolds, Guenette, and Oldenburg were among the panelists at a recent seminar on presenteeism sponsored by AIM and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. They spoke to BusinessWest about reasons employers need to hear such a discussion, and what they can do to help workers who are struggling to balance work and life — and often falling short in both realms.

Present and Unaccounted For
Presenteeism is a fairly new concept, Oldenburg said.
“It was developed over the past 15 to 20 years or so, and while the term can sound pejorative, I think it’s important to point out that there’s a variety of demographic trends driving this issue. All of us can identify a time when we fell into the category of being at work but not being as efficient or productive as we could be.”
Indeed, the reasons for a notable uptick in presenteeism — and corresponding loss of productivity — are many, but most reflect changes in the modern workplace. They include:
• Two-income households and more working mothers. As Oldenburg noted, the past 40 years have seen a dramatic demographic shift in how families divide work and home duties. Where the 1950s model saw a working father and a mother holding down the home front and its attendant child-care duties, the modern family is more-often characterized by two incomes, or, in many cases, working single mothers.
This means that, when a child is too sick to go to school, or other household issues arise, one parent’s workday is often disrupted.
“One thing I urge employees to do is be better-prepared to deal with unexpected circumstances and have back-up plans for when a child suddenly becomes ill or a child needs to be picked up from school,” Guenette said.
If someone doesn’t have child-care plans they feel comfortable with, she added, “often their mental status isn’t there at all; while at work they’re thinking about the care of their child — is the child getting nurtured? Is the child eating? All those things reduce their level of productivity at work. If they had an appropriate backup plan, it’s an easier transition, and then they can really focus on going to work and giving it their all.”
On the flip side, many parents use their limited sick days to stay home when their children are home from school with an illness, and consequently don’t have any when they’re sick themselves — which risks the spread of illness throughout the office, thereby compounding the effects of presenteeism in its classic form.
• The ‘sandwich generation.’ This is a term that descibes people who are both raising children and providing some level of care to their elderly parents — while, in many cases, holding down full-time jobs. Needless to say, the distractions from the home front can mount quickly, Oldenburg noted.
“That’s a really new concept, the reality that we have a generation of people at work dealing with issues at both ends of the spectrum,” he said. “These pressures are pushing on people who are trying to work while meeting the challenges from two generations, above and below.”
• The ‘knowledge economy.’ “Before,” Oldenburg said, “many workplaces just needed your arms and legs; if you put the widget in the right place and didn’t stick your arm in the machine, that was fine. People were needed for what they could do, not their hearts and minds.”
But today, he continued, “the economy has moved in a direction where workplaces, in order to be most effective, need not only your arms and legs, but hearts and minds. That kind of engagement requires a higher level of attention and ‘presentness,’ if you will.” And that can magnify everyday distractions to the point of seriously hindering productivity.
At the same time, he said, the global economy has forced many companies to scale back and require greater productivity from each employee — making each distracted worker more of a liability to the business than he or she used to be.
• The rise of the Internet. A 1999 study sponsored by the Employers Health Coalition calculated that lost productivity from presenteeism is 7.5 times greater than that from absenteeism. That statistic has only risen since then, as the Internet — not to mention texting and other high-tech communications — has become a much more ubiquitous use of office time, and not just for work-related duties.
“It’s so much easier today to look busy because so much work is done on the computer, and unless you have all the computers facing your doorway, it’s a huge problem for employers,” Reynolds said. “Employees spend an unbelievable amount of time surfing the Web. It’s a lot easier to look busy when you’re not doing the work you’re supposed to be doing.”
• Everything else. It was easier to gauge the extent of presenteeism when it simply meant coming to work sick, but including every other distraction in the definition makes it tougher for employers to get their arms around.
“Whether it’s asthma, allergies, or chronic conditions, people might be at their desks but not productive because of how they’re feeling physically,” Oldenburg said. “But it’s more than that: anything that’s going on that keeps people from being active and engaged at work — including interpersonal or relational issues — may drive presenteeism.”

Human Resources
In the face of what must seem like overwhelming amounts of wasted time, many employers are asking what they can do to reverse the trend toward presenteeism. Equally important, Reynolds said, is what they should not do.
“Any time an employee is at work and is not able or willing to give 100% effort, it’s a problem for the employer,” she conceded. “But they can’t solve people’s personal issues. While they should give people information about resources available to them, and encourage them to take advantage of those resources, if they try to solve their problems, it’s a disaster.”
That said, any personal distraction is an issue for employers who are paying for time focused on the job.
“Ultimately the jobs have to be done,” Reynolds said. “Don’t be oblivious to what’s going on in the company, but be realistic about what you can provide and the ultimate reason the company is there and the employee is there. The best employers are not heartless; they care very much, but they realize they don’t have a magic pill, and they can’t solve everyone’s problems.”
So what can they do? She and others pointed to employee-assistance programs (like Oldenburg’s in the Baystate system) and other human-resources outreach efforts that can link employees with outside resources to help them deal with personal, financial, or family matters.
“There’s no way to eliminate presenteeism 100%, but you can diminish it greatly using a variety of different resources,” Guenette said. “Having resources to help in those difficult circumstances, and somebody to turn to on a consistent basis, is usually a big help for employees.”
Part and parcel of the employee-assistance process, Oldenburg said, is understanding the needs of the company’s workers.
“Because Baystate is a health care organization and we are a woman-dominated workplace demographically,” he explained, “in addressing presenteeism, Baystate wants to look at the kinds of issues showing up primarily for women. The goal is knowing what kinds of challenges are facing your workforce and the variety of ways you can get at that.”
Square One’s Guenette agreed. “You really need to know the demographics of your workplace, and understand the needs of your employees, to be able to respond to those needs,” she said. “If the workplace is mainly from the Baby Boom generation, their needs will be different than an organization where most employees are females and in their childbearing years.”
Another key factor, Oldenburg said, is knowing the difference between employee satisfaction and employment engagement. His organization and others are starting to move toward surveying workers on both.
“It’s management’s responsibility to know what’s going on when productivity or performance is suffering. It’s an issue,” Reynolds said. “It’s all about whether an employee is engaged and willing to give effort toward their job.
“You may have an employee who’s very satisfied; he likes the company and is paid adequately,” she added. “Yet, he may not be very engaged at all in the work he should be doing. I think that was an eye-opener to some people in the room” at last month’s seminar.
Guenette said good employers understand, for example, why parents (especially first-timers) will fret over leaving their child in the care of someone new, which is why it’s important that a working mother or father plan ahead for such contingencies. But, in the same way, employers can plan ahead too, by understanding the unique personal needs of their workforce.
“The sooner you begin to identify and address these issues, the better it’s going to go for the organization and the employee,” Oldenburg explained, adding that employers can also model good wellness habits — healthy snacks in vending machines, posted signs about handwashing and infection control — that cut down on the number of employees who come to work sick.
Meanwhile, he added, “there are many ways in which supervisors and managers can check in with employees and identify when there might be an issue, and point people in the right direction.”
Guenette agreed that communication is key.
“Our workforce knows they’re valued, and as an employer, you want to work with them to handle their issues,” she said. “When you give them opportunities and resources to choose from, it makes the whole situation much better for them, and for us as an employer.”
Meaning that life goes on — but the work gets done.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *