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Presenteeism – The Ironic Dangers of Fronting Up

Blonde woman sneezing into a napkin while at a workshop

There we were, going through our monthly metrics, when we got to that old chestnut “number of sick days used” and a comment around the table was that we were losing upwards of 20 staff days a month through absenteeism. Not good... Or is it?

In this day and age of remote communication tools, flexible work arrangements, tablets (of the electronic variety), mobile phones and the like, is being away from the office really that much of a problem, and should we not be actively encouraging staff to not come in?

I can sense some baby boomers getting riled up at the idea. Watch that blood pressure folks…

But in all seriousness, should we not be measuring the cost of presenteeism instead?

Three times in the last month I’ve had to ‘actively encourage’ staff to go home on the basis that they were clearly unwell and all they would achieve by being in the office was:

  1. Some level of sympathy and martyrdom from the team

  2. A worsening condition

  3. Efficient spreading of germs to the rest of the team

What inevitably follows is that within a week, another couple of people get the sniffles, then the aches and finally the full blown flu. Rinse, repeat. And while we all admire the stoicism and it certainly helps address the absenteeism issue, is it not in effect worse to come in when you shouldn’t?

On the flip side, I’ve worked in organisations where if you were ‘off sick’ the boss would have a comment or two to make about hardening up and not taking the proverbial, which in turn led to a sense of fear and uncertainty among team members who were conditioned to fear staying home ill. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t a great place to work.

As a semi-regular ‘work-from-homer’ I actually often find myself being more productive at home than in the office. I know of quite a few people who concur with this view. I also know that if I’m feeling crook (and contagious), being home means I can have a bit of a rest on the couch, still be able to troubleshoot most issues, still have the conversations I need to (mostly) but not spread my germs to the rest of the team.

I know that unless they’re really crook, my staff do the same thing (within reason) and surely that level of balance is needed in this day and age, particularly around those grey areas where you’re not necessarily quite ill enough to take yourself to the doctors, but certainly not feeling up to going to work. Presenteeism, I venture to say, is a multiple of absenteeism, because it doesn’t just affect the protagonist, it drags others down too.

My message? It’s often the lesser of two evils to stay home, than show up because you have to. It’s better for the individual, their colleagues and the culture of the place.

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