The Perils of Presenteeism

Establishing a workplace culture in which managers and employees feel compelled to clock in can quickly lead to a reversal of fortune.

Some businesses are lucky enough to have employees who want to come to work. Perhaps these companies pay generously, offer enviable benefits plans, or allow for lots of paid time off. On the other hand, maybe a solid work ethic drives the employees to perform. Some are so passionate about what they do that you’d have a tough time keeping them from doing their jobs. All of these scenarios sound great, but there is a dark side.

Showing up at work without regard for the state of one’s health remains part of America’s workforce culture. Hourly workers who fear missing part of a paycheck or, in some cases, outright termination for taking time off to get over an illness will report for duty with all kinds of symptoms bogging them down. At the other end of the spectrum you have the salaried managers or executives who fear that their absence will lead to chaos and their return will be greeted by a cornucopia of catch-up work. They show up looking like they’d been hit by a truck. Either way, establishing a workplace culture in which managers and employees feel compelled to clock in can quickly lead to a reversal of fortune.

Imagine the following scenario in your own shop. Your most skilled press operator has a bad cold, but he’s out on the production floor anyway because he knows you rely on him so much. Instead of completing that demanding job ahead of schedule, his drowsiness takes its toll in the form of ruined substrates—and not just vinyl, but the very exotic and very expensive media of which you happen to be in extremely short supply. A production manager who’s under the weather is no help, either. Jobs are jumbled together, press schedules are screwed up, and that lucrative P-O-P campaign that was tagged for local delivery and installation is now boxed up and headed across the country to the wrong customer. Sound extreme? These things can happen. This is presenteeism, a practice that’s quickly becoming one of the top hidden costs for businesses.

Studies over the past several years have shown that presenteeism is surpassing its polar opposite, absenteeism, by leaps and bounds. Presenteeism costs employers approximately $2000 each year for each employee, according to a 2004 report from Cigna Behavioral Health. Another troubling statistic: The Bureau of National Affairs has found that employers absorb $250 billion in presenteeism-related costs each year—a direct result of employees working when they should instead be minding their health.

What can you do to fix the problem? Plenty of options are available. Assess and adjust your sick-leave program as needed, based on the trends in your own shop that you will undoubtedly now wish to review. Revisit your company’s policies and make efforts to modify outmoded rules regarding absence. Inform your employees about the dangers of working when their health isn’t at its peak or when medications for their ailments could impair their judgment or reaction times. Look into your building’s health as well, and take the steps necessary to keep the place more hygienically sound. Doing so also boosts morale.

You have plenty of options—lots more than are discussed here—at your disposal to combat the ill effects of presenteeism. The first step you should take won’t cost you a thing: Ditch the old-school be here or else mentality.

Ben P. Rosenfield
Managing Editor

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