This picture is why presenteeism is bad for your business

February 27, 2019
This picture is why presenteeism is bad for your business

Presenteeism is at a record high. But should we be celebrating the fact that our employees are forcing themselves to work while sick? Or encouraging them to take time off to recover?

I did a little experiment to help me find the answer. But first, let’s look at what presenteeism actually is.

What is presenteeism?

According to the CIPD, presenteeism hit a record high in 2018. But is this actually a bad thing?

Presenteeism describes an employee who works, when perhaps they shouldn’t. For example, by clocking in at the office, despite being sick. Wikipedia says that “presenteeism, or working while sick, can cause productivity loss, poor health, exhaustion and workplace epidemics.”

On the surface, it’s easy to conclude that presenteeism is the logical solution to absenteeism. After all, you want more bottoms on seats. Less sick days? Hell yeah! But actually, the reality isn’t quite so rosy.

Let’s look at a quick experiment I did last week.

I asked our illustrator to work with an injured hand

Our illustrator, Richard Smith, has been drawing for People HR since 2013. You may have seen his art on the People HR blog, or even in the popular People HR employee handbook.

Now, earlier this month, Richard had an operation on his hand. The hand he draws with. He had to take time off work, because his hand didn’t work properly.

But for the sake of science, I asked him if he would mind drawing us a picture, before his hand fully healed. To see what happened when we ‘made’ him work before he was well enough to work. He obliged, and the result is at the top of this article. So what’s the problem?

You’ll get results – but they might not be the results you want

As you can see, the picture Richard drew for us, is a good picture. In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s a great picture – I’m a big fan of artists like Quentin Blake, and their deliberately ‘messy’ style.

But the lines are rough, the colour spills over the edge, and it probably wasn’t the most enjoyable experience for Richard. So despite actually liking the cover picture for this article, I’m not convinced that we should be encouraging employees to work through their sickness at all!

You don’t want payroll doing a ‘deliberately messy’ pay run one month. And I doubt a customer in a cake shop would be happy with an ‘artistic impression’ of the specific cake they had ordered.

But presenteeism can impact more than just the work your employees produce. And it isn’t always a visible illness your employee might be struggling with.

When an invisible illness reaches breaking point

“We recently had an issue with a mentally ill employee” says Matthew Ross, co-owner of The Slumber Yard. “This particular employee was having some issues at home, and started to show some signs of stress. My business partner and I just assumed it was temporary and that it would pass.”

Unfortunately for Ross, the issues were a lot deeper than he realised. When Ross called the sick employee to check on his workload one evening, it sent him over the edge. Instead of locking up as normal, the employee smashed the glass door entrance to the office.

“I arrived at the office the next morning, to discover that homeless people had been sleeping there” recalls Ross. “They didn’t steal much, only some food and a laptop. But we had about $100k worth of inventory in the back!”

Ross and his business partner have since taken action, urging the employee to get help dealing with his stress. But they reflect that if they had taken action earlier, and recognised ‘presenteeism’, this could have been far more beneficial for everybody involved.

79% of employees force themselves to work while sick

The issue of presenteeism spreads far and wide. Our latest research found that 79% of employees are too afraid to call in sick.

Illnesses that people most commonly force themselves to work through include:

  • Colds and flu
  • Back and joint pains
  • Stomach ailments
  • Stress or emotional crises

This is bad for the individual, and bad for your organisation. Whether it’s a mental illness causing a breakdown, a broken leg causing an accident, or a common cold causing an epidemic. As employers, are we putting too much pressure on employees to come into work when they are not fit to do so?

You can read more about our research here.


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