The awareness of absenteeism in the workplace is growing, especially after the pandemic shone more of a spotlight on physical and mental health. However, is there a bigger threat to productivity and the employee experience, which still largely goes unseen beneath the surface?

The greater of two evils

Presenteeism occurs when staff are physically present at work, yet not performing at peak levels. It’s the concept that productivity is more nuanced than a mere correlation to attendance.

Although presenteeism is often seen as the twin of absenteeism, this is an unwise simplification, if merely because it has the potential to be far more damaging. This is largely due to its insidious nature; it often flies under the radar and can even be born out of good intentions.

Considering the scale and scope of the workforce, measuring productivity and therefore presenteeism can be incredibly difficult. However, it’s detrimental to just assume that your employees are always working at their best, whether consciously or otherwise. In essence, presenteeism is a dripping tap with the potential to flood your office. Can you afford that at a time when productivity is more important than ever?

Some of the causes of presenteeism are more obvious than others, but just like presenteeism itself, it’s the fact that a lot of these are hard to detect that make them dangerous.


Absences are, by definition, likely to be visible. Most organisations log sick days in some form, making absenteeism easier to monitor. The hard part is knowing how to deal with it in a way that benefits both employee and employer. What happens when someone comes into the office when they’re not feeling well though? This is one of the most common causes of presenteeism; someone who is ill will never be as productive as when they are fully fit.

This issue can be complicated. Depending on your sick pay policies, asking someone to go home when ill can result in them receiving reduced pay. Another consideration is that an employee might believe they are doing the right thing by continuing to work in the office whilst battling through illness. However, this is one instance where the best of intentions can cause a negative result, potentially infecting other people and further reducing productivity.

Mental health

Mental health issues are much harder to identify than physical health issues, however they can have just as much of an effect. Although mental health can obviously be affected by personal factors, elements such as stress and burnout are often linked to the workplace.

The increased pace of many jobs can put a strain on employees, made worse by bad management or even the individual putting pressure on themselves. This pressure can then spill out into every area of life. This is compacted by the rise of technology, making it harder to switch off even outside of working hours. Again, a member of staff with the best intentions might believe they are doing the right thing by working extra hours, whereas this can be harmful to mental health. This behaviour can spread by example; managers themselves need to be particularly careful of this with their own out-of-hours practices.


Employee engagement is your personal relationship with your job, how enthused you are, passionate you are, driven you are on a daily level by your role. It’s one of the main ingredients of employee experience. There are three states to employee engagement: engaged, disengaged, and actively disengaged. Presenteeism is caused by the last two.

Most people are not inherently disengaged and have simply become this way at some point on their employment journey. Unappreciation, boredom, and unrealistic workload are among the common factors associated with disengagement. It often comes down to a failure to instil company culture into an employee.

Disengaged employees are likely to coast along, doing the absolute minimum to get by. Recently this state has gained prominence by another name: quiet quitting. Worse though is active disengagement, where employees make a conscious effort to actively work against your business from within. Both stages are contagious though, and run the risk of having a huge impact on organisational morale if left unchecked.

Presenteeism prevention

In light of these complex causes, and the fact that presenteeism itself is so difficult to spot, how can you combat it?

Although it might seem slightly counterintuitive, the most efficient course of action is to focus on the causes of presenteeism rather than trying to measure or identify it. Your business will be all the more successful for making that jump of understanding to where productivity cannot accurately be measured by occupied office seats. With this acceptance comes a number of solutions, all of which will make your company a happier, healthier and more productive place even aside of presenteeism.

Review absence policies

It’s easy to draw up absence policies which protect your company from abuse, but do they also support your employees? Absence policies are often part of larger legacy regulations which often go many years without review, and might no longer best suit your organisation and staff. Do your employees feel supported by your organisation when they get ill, and have the ability to step away from work to properly recover without feeling guilt or stress? These are the things to consider to reduce illness-based presenteeism; staff recuperating with adequate sick leave return to the office fully fit and productive.

Enable remote working

Remote working is a flexible working practice which can bring about a better work/life balance. Even hybrid working with one or two days a week at home can improve the employee experience for many, boosting mental health. Where staff have a potentially contagious illness such as colds or flu, the ability to work at home also provides a far better solution than coming into an enclosed area where germs can easily spread.

Lead by example

As a business owner or manager, you might routinely fail to take appropriate lunch or screen breaks, leave devices on past the end of the workday and have an overall poor work/life balance. Although there may be times when this is very difficult to avoid, it’s important to remember that you set an example for your workforce. By exposing them to bad habits, you might end up fostering a workaholic environment which is not only unproductive due to false economy, but also unsustainable from a health perspective.

Review workloads

If a member of staff has a disproportionate workload, ensure you have a process in place to review it. This is something that should be done periodically across your whole organisation, not just for individual workers. Bottlenecks within a business create inefficiency, and no employee should feel that they cannot afford to be ill with no adequate cover.

Create and instil culture

It’s important to foster a strong culture within your company which reflects its core values. This culture should play a pivotal role in removing the stigma of both mental health and taking sick days. Instilling this into your workforce creates an atmosphere where staff feel like they can actually breach the subject with both managers and peers, leading to positive change.

The new now

Times have changed. Just as remote working means that an empty desk doesn’t necessarily indicate an absence, it’s more critical than ever to remember that the inverse is true: a populated desk don’t always equal a worker at peak productivity. Address presenteeism now to improve the working lives of your staff and your business performance.

Want to enable your staff to Be More Present through remote working, but worried about maintaining communication, collaboration and productivity? Southern Communications Group – SCG provide solutions which not only maintain these business-critical factors but actually improve them. Contact us now on 01256 391 046 to find out how.