The majority of organizations today have employee support programs to help with workplace absenteeism.

Examples include sick days, short term disability, long term disability, return-to-work, workplace accommodation, vacation, emergency family care, and the list goes on. The goals of these programs are to reduce costs to employers, improve employee productivity and ultimately top and bottom line financial results.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American businesses lose an average of 2.8 million work days each year due to unplanned absences, which costs employers more than $74 million. Some thought circles put this number close to $200 million. Regardless, the numbers are staggering, and with our aging population and increasing life expectancy these numbers will continue to escalate.

But…

The figures above deal with workplace absenteeism ONLY, and not workplace presenteeism. What’s the difference? We’ve defined absenteeism to be the employee being absent from work due to health reasons. According to Dr. Gary Cooper, who pioneered the term “presenteeism” in the mid-90’s, this is where employees show up for work even if they are too sick, stressed, or distracted to be productive.

There is an underlying medical issue that is causing the employee to be unproductive at work.  They’re physically there but not really THERE!  The result?  Poor productivity and performance, which often negatively influences colleagues and peers.

The above definition of presenteeism originally coined by Dr. Cooper focuses on health being the reason for non-performance and productivity at work. There are many reasons why presenteeism exists, and through my experience and research, I would argue that our mental states are the key drivers of presenteeism. Corporations have spent so much time, money and resources reducing absenteeism that it has created a culture of fear and anxiety towards being absent from work. Businesses have even gone as far as rewarding employees for not taking sick days, or using sick-related benefits. This has pushed us to behave and act in ways that are in fact more detrimental to our own physical health, and personal productivity and performance.  At the end of the day, we are scared to death of not satisfying the “butt in chair” optic.

The Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario provides a more precise and detailed description of the reasons for presenteeism, which relate to stress and sub-par psychological state of mind.

Case in Point…

With our world literally turning itself upside down every single day; natural disasters, gigantic hostile takeovers, corporate cuts, war, political upheaval, the technological explosion, WE are scared to death. We have bills to pay, mouths to feed and simply staying alive and covering basic survival needs has never been more at the forefront of everything we do and think about. Decisions are made so quickly, and through our natural “fight or flight” human responses, our actions are dictated by our emotions. Simply put, we’re afraid of being pushed aside or marginalized in the workplace.

Let’s Add a Twist…

We’ve been talking about presenteeism defined as being at work when sick or unhealthy. I am jumping out on a limb here and am going to argue that presenteeism is also about being at work when you ARE perfectly healthy but spending time doing other things completely unrelated to helping your company achieve and succeed on its business objectives.  What about people that are physically there but simply wasting time by choice?

This Doesn’t Make Any Sense…

My explanation… we are unbelievably connected socially through technological means with anyone, anywhere, and at anytime.  We are a culture of “checking in” (e.g. FourSquare, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email, blog and the list goes on). When using a laptop we typically have multiple screens open at once, flipping back and forth constantly from Hootsuite to email to LinkedIn to Facebook to blogs. Our iPod’s are raging 24-7, mobile phones buzzing constantly from incoming texts, emails, tweets or phone calls, and this is all happening at 10,000 miles an hour. Our attention spans are probably 10,000% shorter than they were just 10 years ago and our concentration levels are limited to the 10 seconds of complete silence we actually get in a given day. Our social connections, technological “connectedness” and instant and constant real-time communication habits result in our available time that should be spent on work is being eaten up doing other things and being unproductive.

The Point? Perfectly healthy people are wasting incredible amounts of time at work, as are unhealthy people. This is ALL presenteeism to me!

What Are the Costs?

I made the argument that technological waste needs to be part of the definition of presenteeism. Research does exist to show that presenteeism is significantly greater than absenteeism but currently I would consider the research a bit sketchy because a) it only deals with presenteeism that is related to medical issues, and b) the statistics are all over the place. Research has been done, primarily in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

The Journal of Occupation and Environmental Medicine argues that “presenteeism costs employers as much as 3 times the dollar amount as absenteeism in terms of lost productivity”.

Statistics Canadaargues that “productivity lost from presenteeism was 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism”. They also argue that “stress related health problems could increase the ratio to 15 times greater”.

Canadian Occupational Safety provides a good perspective on the problem of presenteeism and argues that it is 4 times bigger than absenteeism in terms of hours lost. The COS also includes research completed from Watson Wyatt Canada that puts the ratio of presenteeism to absenteeism between 2.5 and 8.6 times, with the top 3 medical causes of presenteeism being depression, fatigue and insomnia.

Another Wrinkle in the Cost Argument…

If you have heard me speak in the past or follow my blog, you have likely heard me talk confidently about the positive correlation that exists between employee engagement and business results. The more engaged your workforce is the more successful you will be in achieving your corporate strategic objectives. In terms of a definition for employee engagement there are many, but I have typically used something close to the following:

“An intimate emotional connection that an employee feels for the company they work for that propels them to exert greater discretionary effort in their work”.

Now throw in what I have talked about regarding presenteeism into the mix. Do you think perfectly healthy employees that are physically at work but choosing to do other things is an example of strong engagement? I didn’t think so. Earlier I threw around a bunch of figures for what presenteeism costs business today, and nowhere in this research do these numbers reflect what employee disengagement caused by presenteeism costs. I am NOT going to try and take a stab at what this number may be but the point here is it would be profoundly staggering and it’s a huge problem.

Conclusion…

Pis a much more costly problem than absenteeism, yet corporations focus mostly on reducing absenteeism. I also argue that the current definition of presenteeism only relates to medical reasons, but should include lost productivity and performance as a result of perfectly healthy employees doing things completely unrelated to the business.

These other things are directly related to technology and our “check in everything now and now” mentalities. I also argue that presenteeism is a significant drain on employee engagement, which strongly correlates to business results.  Finally, presenteeism is a huge problem, and by taking on a more accurate understanding of what presenteeism is, the problem is epidemic-like and should be the focus of organizational improvements today.