Decoding presenteeism: fresh research on employee wellbeing

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Ben Moss discusses a new approach to defining presenteeism and how leaders can use this to enhance its measurement and management

The concept of presenteeism has increasingly garnered attention as organisations have struggled to understand, and measure, its impact in the post-pandemic working landscape. During that time terms like ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘there but not there’ have become commonplace.

Historically, ’presenteeism’ has been used to describe all instances of working whilst unwell – a fact which has made it incredibly difficult for employers to accurately quantify its impact on key business and people outcomes. In turn, this has blocked the implementation of effective management approaches.

Traditionally, the conversations around presenteeism have led professionals in the people and management space to consider all types of working whilst unwell as detrimental to both the employee and the business, and ultimately very costly. However, the research and data explored in our “Seeing Presenteeism Differently” report, reveals something quite different. As a result, we have developed a new taxonomy to help organisations measure and manage different types of “working whilst unwell”. There are also clear implications for the training and development of line managers and supervisors.

New categories of presenteeism

Our research identified three distinct types of working whilst unwell.

There are two types of functional presence:

  1. Pragmatic presence
  2. Therapeutic presence

The functional types deliver some level of productivity for the business and do not adversely affect the employee.

There is one dysfunctional type:

  1. Presenteeism

Current definitions and practices within the modern workplace fail to acknowledge the differences between the types and consequent management implications, only one of which should be classed as true presenteeism and eradicated from businesses. For leaders, this enforces the point that taking one approach to all instances of working whilst unwell is not beneficial for the employee or the business.

Re-evaluating the relationship between presenteeism and absenteeism

How does all of this relate to sickness absence? For many years, the prevailing narrative around the presenteeism and absenteeism has been that when presenteeism goes down, absence rates go up and vice versa.

In contrast, our research data indicates a positive correlation between the two, that they rise and fall together. Research from Whysall et al (2018) suggests that the direction of causality tends to be from presenteeism to absence. This means presenteeism is likely to influence absence rates directly and in turn, high presenteeism rates are likely to be a predictor of future rises in absence rates.

This insight forms the basis of a new training need for line managers – understanding what ‘true’ presenteeism looks like so they can recognise it as a leading indicator of absence and manage it effectively. Of course, for this to be a reliable predictive tool and for businesses to be able to take meaningful action to shift the dial on presenteeism they must be clear on how they are understanding and measuring it.

Putting research into action for leaders and their organisations

By adopting a new approach to defining and measuring working whilst unwell in their businesses, employers can accurately categorise employee behaviour and pinpoint the factors driving presenteeism within their teams.

With the right training and development for line managers and wellbeing champions, there’s a real opportunity to change the way that working whilst unwell and, more broadly, employee absence is managed. When these key ‘operators’ in organisational health and wellbeing understand this new paradigm, they can have more personalised, higher quality conversations with employees. Ultimately, this is about enabling employees to make better decisions about when they should and should not work when they don’t feel 100%.

Improving communications around employee needs

A really important element of this is creating an open channel of communication for employees to share how they honestly feel at work. And employees, themselves, must also be willing to share their needs and work closely with their line manager to ensure that functional presence does not become dysfunctional when they really do need to take sickness absence.

The first step in measuring the ‘real’ impact of presenteeism is operationalising this is for employers to absorb these insights and consider how they relate to current practice in terms of measuring and managing both presenteeism and employee absence.

The next step is to consider how these findings could stimulate change and more effective practice. From there, inevitably, training needs for managers, champions and employees should be considered so that the new approach can be implemented to a high and sustainable standard.

Overall, this changing narrative presents a huge opportunity for employers to accurately measure its prevalence and put appropriate strategies in place to manage all types of working whilst unwell.

Ben Moss is Business Psychologist and Managing Director at Robertson Cooper

Ben Moss

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