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Presenteeism - Are you working your employees when they are sick?

Here's a new term I just picked up but hadn't heard before - "presenteeism"..

Michael at the The Career Revolution picked up this term at a wellness conference (he's got a emerging blog, check it out).  The definition?  Michael cites WikiPedia - "Presenteeism is the opposite of absenteeism. In contrast to absenteeism, when employees are absent from work illegitimately, presenteeism discusses the problems faced when employees come to work in spite of illness, which can have similar negative repercussions on business performance". Headaches7

So there's a nifty term for what we all tell our employees (don't come to work and get everyone else sick...) - that's cool...

What's not cool about the term and the associated research behind presenteeism?   The biggest limitation in accepting presenteeism as a real factor in productivity loss is the research behind it.  From a Cornell study on presenteeism:

"For such conditions as allergies and headaches, on-the-job productivity losses could account for over 80 percent of employers' total illness costs, the Cornell and Medstat researchers report in the first study to add the cost of on-the-job productivity losses from common health problems to total employer health-related expenses."

"All in all, this means that from about one-fifth to three-fifths of the total dollars attributable to common health conditions faced by employers appear to be the result of on-the-job productivity losses," says Ron Goetzel, director of IHPS. He notes that headaches, allergies, arthritis, asthma and mental health-related problems such as depression incur the greatest on-the-job productivity losses.

So work with me to get your head around the body of knowledge on presenteeism.  We know that we don't like folks coming in sick and getting others sick - that seems like a cut and dry scenario where when a virus goes through an office, there's a lot of productivity loss.  Right?  I agree..

But take a look at the list of conditions that are cited as being the biggest contributors to presenteeism.  headaches, allergies, arthritis, asthma and mental health-related problems such as depression

Not exactly a lineup from the cold and flu season.  Aren't all those conditions treated through Rx (maybe withe exception of mental-health problems, but even those are as well) to allow the person to make it through the day as long as they controlling the condition?   None of these would seem to be a productivity drain on the team members around the individual (maybe with the exception of the mental health category).

Click through to Michael's blog for more detail on Presenteeism and some of the cited research.  Based on what I have read, it seems like the reason the term hasn't made it to Hollywood is due to the limitations of the conditions used in the definition - they don't get others sick....



Good Point about the types of problems one can encounter at work. We have a couple of gals who get Migraines. They literally need to turn off their lights in order to get past the throbbing pain they experience during the day. And all of this while on medication! I would not want to work with a migraine headache and am thankful I don't get them. There are other symptoms, however, like asthma and hay fever, that can be controlled at the workplace. There are some things you can work with and others you cannot (and should not have to bear) while at work. This is another justification for more flexibility in the workplace. Employees who are either sick (flu or bad cold) OR have a condition that is not contagious but hell to work under can decide what is best in terms of showing up to work and being less productive or completely un-productive in their jobs. What sucks for more people is the pressure they sometimes feel to show up to work no matter how bad their condition is. And that leads to getting others sick, loss of productivity and often makes everyone agitated in the office when someone is constantly hacking out of all places.


I'm inclined to agree with Alan - the worst problem from the productivity side is having contagious workers feeling that they need to come in no matter what. I've seen whole departments sidelined because one person didn't want to use their sick days. Not pretty.

As far as presenteeism's main conditions, I'd come to work with any of them, except maybe a dangerously severe allergic reaction or asthma attack. I don't live a life where I can choose not to show up if the pollen count has my allergies going nuts. I don't think too many do. Presenteeism seems to be a term without a real problem to describe.


Depression is indeed a productivity drain, even when someone is on medication. I was in a deep depression for over a year WHILE being medicated. (I can only imagine how much worse it could have been if I wasn't medicated.) The depression was mainly caused by my job, so going to work wasn't going to "shake me out of it" or anything. On the worst days, I couldn't go into work at all. On the so-so days -- pretty much four out of five days each week -- I went to work but was maybe 50 percent as productive as I had been the previous year.

I am a firm believer in not going to work if I physically or mentally can't be productive. (Which is different than taking an unscheduled vacation day.) I've worked with plenty of people who practice "presenteeism," and I can say that those people can be pretty useless. And I'll admit that I had days when I was pretty useless, too, yet had to be at work.

Bottom line: The term absolutely fits. I don't think people will ever stop going to work when they aren't well enough to be productive. Blame it on the puritan work ethic that still runs deep in America.

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