“Keep showing up!” they said: the risks of presenteeism

Everyone has heard about absenteeism, a pattern of absence from an obligation, usually at work, which is often a sign of low morale. Much has been written about the cost of absenteeism, with some journalists calling it The Bottom-Line Killer. For entrepreneurs who don’t have a boss tracking their work hours, absenteeism may simply mean being checked out and not showing up. This goes against everything motivational gurus tell founders: keep showing up, and everything will turn out alright. The truth is that there is a bigger culprit when it comes to business performance, whether as an employee or an entrepreneur: it’s called presenteeism.

Presenteeism is working longer hours than needed and showing up even when sick. It’s a fairly new area of research, but it’s already been found that presenteeism can have a greater impact than absenteeism on your business in terms of performance and productivity.

Presenteeism

What causes presenteeism

There are many factors that may come into play and cause presenteeism. Some are specific to employees but many can be experienced by founders too.

  • Lack of job security. Not having a stable, secure position may push people to overwork themselves to ensure they don’t lose their job or that their startup doesn’t fail. This often means keeping on working even when they’re sick and not taking good care of their mental and physical health, which has long-term implications on the business.
  • Workaholism. According to researchers, workaholics are people who tend to work excessively and compulsively. They are internally motivated to work to an excessive extent. As a result, workaholics show the highest burnout and lowest happiness levels compared to other people who do not suffer from workaholism.
  • Large workloads and lack of backup support. Having lots of deadlines to hit and feeling like you’re the only one that can get the job done is a perfect combo to lead to presenteeism. This phenomenon has been studied in the context of the workplace, but it’s easy to imagine how this could also potentially apply to entrepreneurs, and especially solo founders.
  • Performance-based self-esteem. This deserves an entire article but, in short, many ambitious people feel like they need to prove their self-worth while on the job. According to emerging research, these people end up pushing themselves too hard, working longer hours, and neglecting their health in order to overperform.
  • Mission-driven work. A study found that people offering welfare and teaching services—the kind of work that’s focused on helping other people and “doing good”—demonstrated higher rates of presenteeism. It may be that this kind of work cultivates a sense of loyalty resulting in people showing up even when they should really be taking some rest instead.

While there has been very little research on the topic, the main findings suggest that the most effective way to prevent presenteeism is health education. Building a mental gym and listening to your body is crucial when working in a high-pressure job or building a business. Do yourself and your business a service by making sure you don’t overwork yourself. While absenteeism has had more press coverage than presenteeism, the latter can be as detrimental if not more.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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