Not All There

What managers should know about “presenteeism” to protect the bottom line.

By Lindsay Sears
Much emphasis is given to the notion of “leaving work at work” and spending time with family and friends as the key to maintaining work-life balance and overall well-being. Bringing work and office problems into the home does more than negatively impact relationships; it can lead to chronic stress and illness, perpetuating a cycle of employee absenteeism. While this phenomenon substantially affects productivity and growth in the workplace, not enough attention is given to the other side of the problem: presenteeism. This term describes employees who are physically present at their jobs, yet unable to be fully productive, due to personal and environmental barriers.

In fact, recent studies show that presenteeism—the phenomenon of workers who are unproductive because they are only nominally present at work—is actually more costly to a business than absenteeism. The dynamic costs American business more than $150 billion annually, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, accounting for 71 percent of the total cost of lost productivity in the U.S.

Given the current economic environment, these numbers aren’t likely to improve. With the unemployment rate stagnant in September—at 9.1 percent for a third consecutive month—and with no economic rebound in sight, employees are desperate to hold on to the jobs they currently have. Combine these financial pressures with leaner office staffs, and presenteeism is bound to increase, due to workers’ fears that taking even one day off might jeopardize their current positions.

Presenteeism can also significantly impact the morale and productivity of other members of the organization. These staffers will have to overcompensate for the underperforming employee, leading to resentment and burnout. In addition, healthcare costs are also affected when an employee’s social and emotional problems affect one’s physical health. Eighty percent of healthcare costs in the United States are rooted in lifestyle choices and our environments.

The study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine revealed that employers can holistically measure presenteeism as a way to effectively influence productivity through actionable information that is focused on physical, social, and emotional health and well-being. However, current measures of the sources of employee presenteeism have solely focused on the physical health components that drive productivity loss, as opposed to a more comprehensive focus on an individual’s well-being.

In order to truly make progress in this area, business leaders need to chart a path toward a holistic view of well-being that addresses all aspects of an individual’s health, including home, work, and community life. Without a more comprehensive understanding of the various sources that lead to presenteeism, employers are left to guess how to address and manage these barriers to productivity.

Taking Action
Implementing a preventative well-being program for your workforce is necessary to avoid the profound impact of presenteeism on productivity and the bottom line. Successful programs will include holistic recommendations for each employee based on his or her responses to the WBA-P, and the creation of customized communications to then engage the employee. Employee participation will vary by individual, using various communications and methods of contact to improve outcomes.

From tobacco cessation programs and healthy cafeterias, to health coaching and stress management programs, personalized plans that make it easy for the employee to stay involved create not only a healthier workforce, but also a happier one.

Employers must also remain cognizant of work environment factors that they can control to help their employees stay as productive as possible. For instance, work overload, training needs, and a lack of budgetary or technological resources all play a role. These workplace factors can be used to inform company leaders of high-level issues that might be occurring across business units, locations, and types of employees. Better understanding employees’ day-to-day tasks will be helpful in order to make the appropriate work environment changes.

When it comes to evaluating productivity, the single most important change companies can embrace today is a shift toward a holistic approach when it comes to evaluating productivity. With revenues and profitability being negatively impacted, active well-being initiatives are no longer a “nice to have”—they are a business imperative. This is a cultural shift that is best communicated by example, beginning from the top down. From small companies to corporations, our nation’s businesses will only begin to break through these productivity barriers when they commit to focusing on employees and not just the machine that their employees fuel.

Lindsay Sears, Ph.D. is principal investigator, Center for Health Research, Healthways.

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, HRO Today Global, Professional Contribution

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