By Andie Burjek
Jun. 22, 2019
Presenteeism is heralded as a big problem in business as it’s something that can decrease an individual’s productivity or affect that of their co-workers as well.
Presenteeism, which is chiefly defined as employees who are not functioning at maximum capability due to illness, injury or another condition, could be helped if employees took time off when sick or vacation days to unwind. But the issue is not that simple. Reasons for presenteeism depend on many factors, whether it’s an individual’s attitude toward work, an employer’s workplace culture or the overall economic environment.
Employees taking time off bottomed out during the Great Recession. Over the past decade, the numbers haven’t recovered, said Steve Koepp, former Time Inc. editor and founder of From Day One, a Brooklyn-based conference series focused on creating a more collaborative, empathetic and productive workplace.
The United States is the only country without mandated vacation or sick leave. If the nation doesn’t set the tone that time off is important, it doesn’t trickle down to companies, Koepp said.
There are some things companies can do to address presenteeism, based on the reasons why employees are not taking time off.
Employees may face barriers to taking time off if the company has overt or subtle ways to vacation-shame employees, Koepp said. If a manager responds to a request for time off with a negative response like, “But this is the worst time,” that may have a “chilling effect” on future requests, he said. In unhealthy workplace environments, an employee may return from a vacation only to hear from their manager that something stressful would not have happened if the employee had been at work.
“Companies should lay out some structure, and not just about the number of weeks but about how managers should handle the request, the return and everything about it,” Koepp said.
Leadership expert and coach Jack Skeen shared other ways to address presenteeism. Managers can help create an environment where people feel comfortable taking time off, perhaps by taking time off and talking to employees about how they used it.
Skeen had further suggestions for employees anxious that their career, salary or reputation could be tarnished by using paid time off. The crux of the matter is that you can’t convince people of anything if there’s not trust in the employee-management relationship, he said. That trust is key to delivering PTO-friendly messages successfully.
Skeen suggests that employers clearly and repeatedly tell employees that PTO is encouraged, supported and respected. Employers can share stories about employees who both used PTO and were promoted.
For formal vacation and sick-day policies, Skeen said that they must be fair to everyone in the company, from the frontline workers to the executives at the top. Also, employers should make sure that the policy is clear, specific and not open to excessive interpretation.
Tom Parry, president for the Integrated Benefits Institute, a nonprofit focused on research and benchmarking the link between health and productivity, agreed that trust between the employer and employee is paramount.
“Employees have to trust their employer. If they don’t trust their employer, if they have that culture that lacks trust, then you’ve got a problem [bigger than presenteeism],” he said.
Given the vast number of reasons employees don’t take time off, Parry said it’s important to survey employees anonymously to determine what’s standing in the way.
Reasons to Support Time Off
The institute seeks to quantify the impact of presenteeism, Parry said. Absenteeism is visible but presenteeism often isn’t, he stressed. While managers can clearly see if an employee is not at work and estimate some business impact, it’s harder to quantify presenteeism.
IBI has done four studies with CFOs in recent years, Parry said. Conceptually, they understand the link between presenteeism and business impact. Practically, though, they won’t take action unless there’s data.
The most important takeaway for employers is to consider the forces outside of their company, Parry said. “What happens a lot of time is we take employers out of that economic and business circumstance that they’re in,” he said.
When an employer is thinking about its individual business, long-term thinking is key alongside short-term opportunities.
“You have to be willing to bite the bullet and maybe not take advantage of every business opportunity if it’s going to have a long-term effect on your workforce,” Parry said.
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