What is the cost of presenteeism at work?

By focusing on absenteeism over the last couple of years, managers have neglected its opposite: presenteeism. Studies have calculated that going to work when we shouldn’t is costly for businesses.

The ABCs of the phenomenon

Presenteeism consists of working when we have a good reason not to; when employees are incapable—as much as psychologically as physically—of working. Sick people fall into this category. Presenteeism can be caused by feelings of obligation to an employer (voluntary) or simply because of the absence of sick days (involuntary).

The severity of presenteeism is especially measured over the long term. Work absence due to a sore back is frowned upon, but when lower back pain isn’t fixed, it can handicap within months. Another example? Mild depression slows you down mentally, but major depression can paralyze you interrupting your thought process. During this time, generated costs become significant.

How much?

This “invisible unproductivity” has only recently started interesting employers. There are only between 15 – 20 studies on the issue, according to Éric Gosselin, professor of work and organizational psychology at the Université de l’Outaouais. He himself is interested in this question and concludes in his research that now—more than ever—there are more sick people at work than at home… ouch.

Stress-related health problems are increasingly diminishing worker productivity, even when workers are sitting down at the office. Cardiac illnesses, hypertension, migraines, and neck or back pain, is undermining our ability to be efficient.

A salaried worker going to work through thick and thin hurts the team’s productivity. Or also, work needs to be redone because of poor communication. This is 10 – 15% of someone’s productivity, gulped down by presenteeism, according to Gosselin.

Worse than absenteeism

For its part, Statistics Canada has evaluated that the output loss associated with presenteeism’s excessive presence is 7.5 times more than with absent employees. Notably because the loss in productivity passes unobserved and can last for a much longer time.

In Quebec, two researchers (Brun and Biron) observed that there are more days of presenteeism (9.9 days) than absenteeism (7.1 days) in the parapublic sector. More generally, it is estimated that a little over half of salaried Quebec workers, at least once a year, are working when they should not. This figure increases in Denmark: up to 70% of the country’s workers—one day or another during the years—show up for work despite poor ability.

The equation is simple: there are more days of presenteeism than absenteeism, and productivity falls for each of these days. The costs of this zeal surpass even that of absenteeism. The Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines evaluates that presenteeism’s cost oscillates between 10 to 15 billion dollars a year in Quebec, versus absenteeism’ 5-billion dollar cost.

Keep in mind, just because a worker is present does not necessarily mean they are performing well. Managers need to open their eyes. The problem can be addressed with relatively little effort, while—firstly—taking into account the issue.

We can understand that businesses need to draw the best out of their personnel to survive, but a healthy work culture is in everyone’s interests.

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