The problem of presenteeism isn’t new. It has been estimated as costing U.S. employers more than $150 billion annually, according to “the American Productivity Audit,” a 2019 phone survey of 29,000 adult employees by a Pennsylvania health system. And that was before the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis has put a new and daunting perspective on presenteeism, which is essentially when an employee shows up for work physically or mentally ill. Obviously, if someone infected with the virus spends time at an office or facility, the ramifications on staff well-being and productivity can be profound. And even those who work from home may be experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression.

To mitigate the negative impact of presenteeism, employers must continue to address the issue through clear wellness policies and, as feasible, effective health care benefits.

Give permission

A common response to presenteeism is, “But we offer paid sick days.” Although paid sick days do generally help resolve incidences of a physical ailment or injury, they may not adequately help with mental illness or extreme personal stress (such as a divorce or financial crisis). Some supervisors may raise eyebrows at those taking a “mental health day” or even a sick day, so sufferers end up coming in to work when they really need the day off.

If you sponsor a health care plan, to the extent possible, include coverage for mental health and substance use disorder services. And be sure employees are aware of this. Also, reinforce that you’ll honor the sick-day provisions spelled out in your employee manual for all types of ailments (physical, mental and psychological). Train supervisors to support employees’ well-being and encourage those who need to take time off to do so if they need it.

Discourage unhealthy behaviors

Another common cause of presenteeism is the perceived notion among some workers that they must put in excessive overtime to prove themselves. Many organizations operate under a culture that says putting in extra hours will lead to quicker raises and promotions.

A supervisor might assume that, if an employee is absent, his or her productivity must be suffering. Conversely, if that same employee is putting in extra time and skipping vacations, he or she must be highly productive. But these assumptions aren’t always true — they must be supported by a thorough and objective performance evaluation process.

You can prevent this type of presenteeism by strongly encouraging, if not strictly enforcing, paid time off policies. Communicate to employees your concerns about overworking and remind them to take advantage of the time off that they’ve earned. (Doing so can also deter fraud.)

Stay aware

“Tough it out. Work through it.” These used to be calls to action at many workplaces. Today, they could lead to devastating consequences for an employer. Make sure your organization is aware of presenteeism and is addressing the issue.

© 2021