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Understanding Presenteeism and Why It Matters to Organizations & Employees

Would your organization prefer to have a sick person at work rather than miss a day? If so, then it is time to rethink why it is probably not a good policy for your business and staff.


About Presenteeism

Presenteeism describes when a person is physically present at work but performs at a reduced capacity with “decreased productivity and below-normal work quality” for a variety of reasons, generally related to illness.


Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism is not always readily apparent. It is easy to know when someone does not come to work, but it is often difficult to know when or how much an illness or medical condition negatively hinders someone’s performance. Illness has the potential to impact the quality or quantity of work an individual can perform including increased mistakes or slower activity.[i]


According to one recent study, employees take an average of four days off per year for sick time but admitted to being unproductive an average of 57.5 days a year![ii] Quite simply stated, people do not do their best work when they do not feel well.


Negative Consequences

In addition to increased errors and mistakes plus lost or reduced productivity at work, there are other negative consequences for the individual as well as other employees and customers.


First, when an employee fails to take a sick day or days, the person may not recuperate properly, getting sicker or taking longer to get better.

Second, employees who go to work sick endanger public health by putting the health and productivity of other workers – as well as customers and the public – at risk. The impact of spreading disease can result in more people getting sick at work, missing more days, or allowing illness to spread throughout the organization.


Customers have a negative impression of the organization that “allows” sick employees to serve clients. Presenteeism may contribute to an organization’s poor reputation.


Reducing Presenteeism: Disease and illness prevention

One approach to reducing presenteeism is providing an adequate number of paid sick days - a solution that could save employers up to $1.8 billion each year through fewer absences from reduced spread of flu-like illnesses alone. [iii]


“The risks and costs of contagion are highest in workplaces where employees regularly deal with the public, and these are frequently the very workplaces that typically do not allow workers to earn paid sick days. In a survey of women fast food workers, for example, the vast majority – 86 percent – said they lack access to paid sick days, and 7 in 10 report going to work at least once in the previous year while coughing, vomiting, or having a fever or other serious symptoms. This puts workers, customers, and the business itself in danger”.[iv]


There are many reasons why employees go to work when they are sick. An attentive and supportive team at work may recognize when someone should be sent home as well as provide an environment when it is accepted and even encouraged to stay home when ill.

Training programs like “Healthy Hospitality” focus on prevention and mitigation. Teaching public health behaviors, management that demonstrates the proper approaches and encourages others to do the same, as well as incentives to engage in good practices can proactively keep people healthier.


Addressing the issue of presenteeism can have many beneficial effects such as a happier and healthier workforce, reduced errors, increased productivity, and a healthier bottom line. Taking a proactive approach can deliver great results!

[i] Allen, D., Hines, E. W., Pazdernik, V., Konecny, L. T., & Breitenbach, E. (2018). Four-year review of presenteeism data among employees of a large United States health care system: a retrospective prevalence study. Human resources for health, 16(1), 59. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12960-018-0321-9 [ii] “Presenteeism Costs Business 10 Times More than Absenteeism” https://www.ehstoday.com/safety-leadership/article/21918281/presenteeism-costs-business-10-times-more-than-absenteeism [iii] Paid Sick Days Are Good for Business, October 2020, National Partnership for Women and Families. https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/paid-sick-days/paid-sick-days-good-for-business-and-workers.pdf [iv] Ibid Other reading: “Presenteeism: At Work—But Out of It”, Paul Hemp, Harvard Business Review, October 2004. Majority of staff with ‘minor’ illnesses don’t take a sick day by Ashleigh Webber 26 Sep 2018, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/majority-of-staff-with-minor-illnesses-dont-take-a-sick-day/

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