Presenteeism has crept into modern-day business vocabulary and is now listed as a new word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as “presenteeism (noun): working when sick especially to avoid the stigma of being absent. ” Research about the negative impact of this trend is significant, with an estimated impact on workplace effectiveness and productivity amounting to billions.
The focus has hitherto been on the health aspect of the definition, which is of course completely understandable.
But perhaps a little brazenly I think we’re missing the main point.
For me, the key part of the definition is “to avoid the stigma of being absent“. This extends the insidious and more extensive reach of presenteeism beyond macho, masters of the universe, boiler room cultures, into business practises, which many of us encounter every day, as organisations become “lean, mean and keen”.
- Not taking vacations – despite all the occupational health information about the value of annual holidays, even in countries with statutory entitlement provisions - many still don’t take their full quotas.
- Staying late when there is no work to be done – I have much first hand anecdotal evidence to suggest that this practise is rife and that employees who work only their contracted hours are viewed negatively, even if there is no specific deadline to meet.
- Working to unnecessarily tight deadlines set by disorganised management or power playing superiors.
- Working late and at weekends to avoid seeming uncommitted. Technology has created a culture of 24/7 availability and those who don’t respond to messages on their iPhones within nano seconds are perceived to be “slackers”. I have one contact who stores his emails and sends them out at what would be post business hours in various global time zones, to give an impression of super diligence.
- Skipping lunch - the “lunch is for wimps” mentality is prevalent in many organisations, with one connection fainting with hypoglycemia after working for 9 hours without eating. Many eat unhealthy snacks at their desk which drains energy and reduces output.
“Lean, mean and keen business practises contribute to a false notion of efficiency
The fallout from this culture reaches and impacts entire workforces and in particular those who can’t subscribe to this charade and for any number of reasons have to work their contracted hours. Working mothers are one category to feel the judgement heat. Anyone who knows any working mum (or who has been one) understands all too well, that even if they work part-time, this phrase generally refers to compensation, rather than the hours worked, while the workload managed almost certainly hovers around 100%.
Victoria Pynchon highlights this in her Forbes piece where she boldly talks about the amount of “face-time” wasted in her career, suggesting that having a family might have forced her “ … to work in a more focused manner, to organize myself and my working teams better” But truthfully having children isn’t a prerequisite for being focused, although it is certainly necessary .
But on a general workplace level isn’t it time to over turn this outdated culture , which all research suggests leads to a dramatic decrease in individual and therefore organisational productivity. Or as Brendan S maintains that as “offices are inherently inefficient places“ we should be measuring productivity by the results obtained and not the hours spent at a desk.
The irony is that “presenteeism ” does eventually lead to “absenteeism”, with stress from heavy workloads and job insecurity fears, being the highest causes of sickness absence.
Or will we reach a situation such as we see with the Apple manufacturers in China where shamefully, a new spin on workplace Health and Safety is to install safety nets around their buildings to reduce the suicide rate.
What do you think?