Raise your hand if you’ve ever shown up for work sick. Yep. That’s pretty much all of us.

Now raise your hand if you’ve ever had to work with someone who, for whatever reason, clearly should have stayed home. How did you feel about that? Sympathetic? Angry? Resentful? Did you spend half your day washing your hands and fretting about catching the flu? Maybe your work sat idle while you patiently listened to that person describe a personal crisis that needed attention. Perhaps you had to assist that person with something they normally would have been able to do on their own.

Just because employees are physically in the office doesn’t mean they are contributing. Worse yet, in addition to seeing their own production slip, unwell employees can also affect the productivity of others. Businesses who once worried about the impact of absenteeism on their bottom line are now also worrying about the damaging effects of presenteeism – lost productivity that occurs when employees show up for work, but are unable to perform because they are sick or distracted by personal issues. 

Measuring the effects

Absenteeism and productivity used to be easy to measure. Either an employee showed up or they didn’t. And if they weren’t on site, they probably weren’t working. But with today’s technology, many employees have the ability to keep up with work remotely. On the flip side, simply because your employees are dragging themselves into the office doesn’t mean they’re being productive or efficient. In certain industries, safety can be a huge concern (and cost!) when employees are technically on the job but mentally checked out.

Weighing the impact of presenteeism on overall company performance can be difficult, but it has been estimated that presenteeism costs companies somewhere between 150 and 250 billion dollars annually. Meanwhile, data from the UK’s 2015 CIPD Absence Management Survey provides these fascinating statistics:

  • One-third of organizations surveyed reported increases in the number of people coming to work sick from the previous year
  • Presenteeism was more likely to increase in companies where long working hours are the norm and where operational demands take precedence over employee well-being.
  • Those who saw an increase in presenteeism were nearly twice as likely to also report increases in stress-related absences and mental health problems.
  • Approximately 40% of respondents reported that stress-related absence in their organization has increased over the past year.
  • Respondents indicated that workload remains the most common cause of stress, followed by non-work relationships/family, management style and relationships at work.
  • 56% of organizations who noticed an increase in presenteeism have not taken any steps to discourage it.

Feeling a little sick?

Don’t worry. There are things you can do to address the issues of absenteeism and presenteeism, as well as improve stress levels, productivity and your bottom line. Not buying it? A case study from the very same survey reported that since implementing a more robust well-being program, one company saw a 54% decrease in absence and a 90% increase in customer satisfaction. When done right, these strategies can also help build a company culture that sends top notch talent running to your door.  

Evaluate staffing levels. Illness happens to the best of us, and never when we expect it. Running lean is one thing, but if one person on the team calling in sick means your business can’t function, that’s a problem. And, if your team is constantly overworked, they’re even more likely to get sick. Have you gotten in the habit of leaving positions unfilled and/or constantly asking the employees you do have to take on more? It may be time do some quality hiring. Skimping on staff may serve you well in the short term but if you want a happy, healthy, and present workforce, you’ll need to make sure you have enough team members to take on everything you need to get done.

Offer (and encourage) sick time. Discouraging staff from staying home when they are sick may seem like a money saving idea, but the reality of having a sick person at work is rarely productive-- or pleasant. It can also lead to a string of employees ending up sick instead of just one. Talk about lost productivity!

Foster a culture that supports the use of sick days rather than punishing employees for using them. Establish and communicate guidelines for when staying home is acceptable, and send unwell employees home to get better. If an employee calls in sick, express genuine concern for their well-being rather than demanding they get back to work as quickly as possible. You’ll all be better off.

Implement a flexible PTO policy. In addition to noting an uptick in presenteeism, employers also reported that approximately one-third of all sick days were taken for reasons other than illness. As families struggle to balance the demands of work and life, paid time off is quickly becoming the preferred alternative to sick days. PTO is time off that employees can use for any reason. When employees have a bank of PTO to use as they wish, they can take time off to see a doctor for a preventative exam or stay home and rest before an illness intensifies.

Employees may also feel more comfortable taking time off to address a family member's illness, stay home with a sick child, care for an elderly parent, or resolve a personal issue that would otherwise hinder their in-office productivity. With PTO, there's no need to justify the time off or categorize it as a sick or vacation time. This can actually increase productivity, as it can often be used in hourly increments, allowing employees to be out for a short period of time instead of having to call in sick for an entire day.

Get ergonomic. Nearly everyone will experience an episode of chronic back or neck pain at least once in their lifetime. Much of this pain is associated with poor posture from long hours hunched over a computer. In addition to making your employees feel happy and appreciated, ergonomic interventions such as lumbar supportive chairs, specialized typing keyboards, and sit/stand desks can lessen pain, improve posture and reduce lost productivity.

Provide on-site assistance. Depending on the size of your business, your company may benefit from an on-site disability management expert, nurse or vocational specialist. An on-site specialist reduces potential lost time for employees who would otherwise need to leave the office to receive similar care. Additionally, on-site assistance increases the level of personal, face-to-face care available for employees.

Prioritize employee health and well-being. Well-being includes fitness, nutrition, financial health and work/life balance. A workplace culture that supports employee well-being is better for employees and employers alike. It's also the kind of place talented people want to work-- and stay. 

In addition to establishing clear sick days and paid time off policies, re-evaluate your business's current health insurance plan. Are high deductibles and co-pays discouraging employees from visiting the doctor for preventive care? Is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place to address mental health and stress concerns? Talk with your insurance broker about options that will work best for you, your employees and your bottom line.

Photo by Gstockstudio1