Absenteeism and Presenteeism

Cubicles in a former coworking space in Portland, OregonThe concepts of absenteeism and presenteeism are ones I encountered while working on the seminar paper for my master’s degree. It was a bit of a new concept for me, putting into words something I’d observed but hadn’t fully internalized, and I thought this might be valuable for you all.

Absenteeism is pretty straightforward. If someone is sick, or has a sick family member, they may be absent from work. Even if they are physically present, if there is a physical or mental stressor, it can reduce their productivity. A stressful workplace will often lead to increased rates of absenteeism as people find excuses to not be a work.

One of the human resource people at the university where I used to work was known to encourage people to take “mental health days.” We weren’t typically required to explain why we wanted to take a sick day, so we could really take it for any purpose. If you woke up depressed, or were just drained, or couldn’t face what the day held, you might call in sick.[note]As I reflect on this, it strikes me how indicative this is of a negative work culture and damaging work environment. In the two years since I left university, I haven’t needed to take a mental health day. My work now is likely more mentally challenging, but I am better supported by my coworkers and my boss, the environment isn’t as toxic, and I haven’t reached a point of needing to escape work. The need for mental health days to escape your job strikes me as highlighting the need for some significant changes in the workplace. But I digress.[/note]

Absenteeism is caused by a variety of factors. At the end of the day it just means that people are not at work. Presenteeism is a similarly negative event, and denotes what is happening with the people who are at work while others are absent. When one or more people are absent, typically somebody else has to pick up the slack. This means that the people who are still present are either having to halt some of their work so they can do somebody else’s work, reduce quality of all work done, work extra hours, or all three.

This means that we have the 100% reduction of productivity from the absent person, and an additional reduction in productivity from the present employees.

Being aware that absent employees leads to a greater loss than eight hours of work can be helpful for us as managers. Taking this into account can help us help our employees as we give them permission not to do certain tasks or offload some of their work, and to make sure that we aren’t unduly stressing the people who are present such that they will, in turn, need a mental health day.

It also highlights that we should do everything we can to reduce absenteeism. I’m personally quite fond of programs that encourage employee health in all aspects: gym access, encouragement to prefer healthy food, EAPs that provide access to mental health counseling, ergonomic work environments, etc. When combined with a sustainable work schedule, and continual positive support and encouragement, we have a decent chance of reducing the causes of absenteeism.

One thought on “Absenteeism and Presenteeism

  1. Your observation in the ending paragraph summary is “SPOT ON.” If there is a need for Mental Health Days to occasionally escape the “toxic” environment there is a reason and significant changes in the workplace environment is a good beginning step.


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