Presenteeism: the hidden cost of eager employees

Early morning they come coughing and spluttering through the office door, pale skin and red nosed. Equipped with throat lozenges, a box of tissues, and a bag full of pharmaceuticals, they attend meetings, enjoy commiseration from colleagues who compliment their dedication to their job, and produce whatever work they can muster. Then they go home, succumb to a restless night, and come into work the next day.

Chances are you’ve worked with someone like this before – the eager beaver co-worker that’s in even when they look like death warmed up. While society has adopted a culture that applauds hard work and denounces any semblance of weakness, know this: if you’re nurturing (even unbeknownst to you) an office environment that lionises presenteeism, you’re doing your business more harm than good.

A culture that fears absence  

Only 16% of employees used all of their paid sick days in the past year, according to a July 2016 survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 6% of workers used most of their paid sick days, 45% used only some, and 32% didn’t use any. Without even looking at statistics its evident there’s a pandemic of sick people hauling their infected selves to work. And there’s a host of reasons for it including high job demands, job insecurity in a volatile market, finding themselves with no paid sick leave entitlement, fear of giving co-workers additional work in the stead, and of course, being subject to an upspoken fear of being perceived as weak or unwilling.

That being said, surely there are benefits to workers coming in? Absenteeism, after all, is a grave financial issue. Surprisingly, you’ll find that enabling your employees to drag themselves while sick is more expensive. Much more expensive. According to a 2007 study by the Society for Human Resources Management, presenteeism is costing the economy $180 billion annually, which is a notable sum higher than the $118 billion a year lost through employee absenteeism.

It’s quite simple, really – you’re patient 0

Offices are intimate spaces. You have your cubicals, shared lavatories, coffee machines, printers, and cutlery. There never seem to be open windows in offices, so breaths are shared and distributed in stagnant rooms filled with umpteen people. If you’re in a closed office environment, there’s probably a lot of doorknobs, too. The perfect setting for a viral outbreak.

If the issue is an unfounded fear of giving co-workers extra work or being reprimanded for lack of attendance, rationalize your fear and consider the wealth of good you are doing for the company by not sharing your germs. If you’re feeling rotten, consider how kind you are for not sharing the sensation with your peers even if they end up covering for you – after all, most would probably prefer a slightly longer “to do” list than be suspended by the flu for seven to 10 days.

Ideally, though, with any true cold, even just a minor one, you should work from home. Call in sick if you’ve got a stuffed nose (that won’t relent), a cough, chest congestion or have a case of diarrhoea and vomiting. Only go into the office with a fever if you dislike your co-workers and want to see them suffer.

How to avoid superfluous presenteeism costs?

This is a cultural problem. Regardless of where you go, employees are concerned about replaceability (and in contrast, their irreplaceability), being a burden on their co-workers, and finding themselves unable to take leave for economic reasons, for example. It is a wheel of fear that needs to be broken in order to stem the tide of presenteeism.

For that to work, managers and HR officials need to enforce a stringent policy against “noble” workers set on coming to the office to spread their germs. Be proactive; voice that it is policy to not come in when any red-nosed, raspy colleagues amble into work. You’ve got to be the nurse in primary school phoning parents to collect their kids when they don’t pass the health grade.

Making sure your employees are aware of their insurance benefits is a great way to ensure they are getting the right treatment. Some are not sure which hospitals are in their network, or how much coverage they receive on pharmaceuticals, so avoid clinic trips all together. Connecting them with a simple healthcare app is an easy way to guarantee your employee’s welfare.

Software for HR can also be used to great effect. Assigning a leave management system or HR software that is accessible for both employees and management is a fantastic way to empower employees by giving them a simple and direct way of alerting HR and their team of their projected absence while giving HR a clear overview of their remaining sick days.

Finally, the office has to practice what it preaches. Everyone has to be seen following a code of conduct when it comes to being ill. If anyone is caught slaving away while drippling phlegm all over their work laptop, your employees will be unable to surmount the fear that being sick is weak; and no one wants to feel that.

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