Presenteeism: The Hidden Productivity Killer

Much has been written about the cost of absenteeism, with some 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. But there’s a hidden productivity killer we should perhaps pay more attention to: presenteeism.

Presenteeism is working longer hours than needed and showing up even when sick. Studies suggest that presenteeism can have a greater impact than absenteeism on your business in terms of performance and productivity. But, more importantly, it can have terrible consequences in terms of mental and physical health, to the point where researchers have even called it “a public health hazard.”

While you might think that the rise of remote work would have eliminated presenteeism, that’s not the case. Even when working from home, we often feel pressure to be constantly available and responsive, leading us to work longer hours and neglect our well-being. Let’s have a look at what triggers it, and what you can do about it. 

The Triggers of 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.

As you can see, the triggers of presenteeism are complex and varied. However, it’s not just about identifying the causes — it’s also important to recognize that presenteeism manifests in different ways for different people.

The Four Types of Presenteeism

Presenteeism might sound like a straightforward, binary behavior – either you’re showing at work when you shouldn’t, or you’re not. But emerging research reveals that it’s much more nuanced than that.

The Presenteeism Matrix
The Presenteeism Matrix

A recent study identified four distinct profiles of presentees:

  • Functional presentees: Those reporting good health and high performance.
  • Dysfunctional presentees: Those with poor health and low performance.
  • Overachieving presentees: Those with relatively high performance but poor health.
  • Average presentees: Those with average scores on both health and performance dimensions.

If you’re one of the functional presentees, you might be able to maintain high performance without sacrificing your health. But if you’re an overachieving presentee, you might be putting your health at risk in the long run, even if your performance is high right now.

The study also found that dysfunctional presentees were more exposed to job stressors, which highlights the importance of addressing the root causes of presenteeism, rather than just the symptoms. Recognizing these different profiles can help you and your organization tailor your approaches to combating presenteeism.

Taking Action Against Presenteeism

To check if you’re falling prey to presenteeism, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do I feel pressure to always be responsive even outside of normal work hours?
  2. Have I been neglecting my well-being in order to be available at work?
  3. Do I feel like I can’t take time off when I’m sick or need a break?

If your answers to the presenteeism audit raised some red flags, it’s time to take action. Here are some practical steps you can take to combat presenteeism and prioritize your well-being:

• Set clear boundaries. Establish clear start and end times for your workday, and stick to them. Communicate these boundaries to your team and clients, and don’t be afraid to say no to tasks that would require you to work beyond these hours.

• Take breaks. Regular breaks throughout the day can help you recharge and refocus. Step away from your desk, take a short walk, or do some stretching exercises. And don’t forget to take your vacation days — time off is essential for preventing burnout.

• Prioritize your health. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly. If you’re feeling unwell, take the time you need to rest and recover. Don’t push yourself to work when you’re sick — it will only prolong your illness.

If you’re still struggling with presenteeism, consider seeking support to address the root causes. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional. Many organizations also offer employee assistance programs that can provide confidential counseling and resources.

Remember, presenteeism is not a badge of honor. Next time you find yourself working longer hours than necessary or showing up to work when you’re sick, remember to take a step back and assess whether you’re falling into the trap of presenteeism. Your health and your business will thank you in the long run.

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