Ways organisations can combat under-performance due to presenteeism
By Dr. David Batman
In any business, the biggest single cost is likely to be its workforce, representing nearly 70 per cent of operating expenses on average, finds a SHRM study. So it’s no surprise that organisations are always exploring new ways to improve employee performance and productivity in order to maximise the value of their investment in people.
In the past, businesses have attempted to measure productivity by looking at indicators like absenteeism. But a new study of 2,000 employees by Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) shows that this isn’t the real culprit. Clocking on and checking out: Why your employees may not be working at optimum levels and what you can do about it found that while employees were absent from work an average of four days per year, they reported being unproductive for a staggering 57.5 days per year. That’s equivalent to almost three working months! The cost to business is enormous. Absent workers cost employers around $150 billion per year—a line item that is painfully visible on the annual budget spreadsheet.
Much more subtle than absenteeism, presenteeism is when an employee physically turns up at work but is not working at full productivity. Presenteeism can be harder to measure, but the cost to business is 10 times higher than absenteeism. Different research from Gallup, PwC and Direct Health Solutions calculates the cost being $1,500 billion per year. These findings back up what other recent research shows: Businesses that want to improve productivity should focus first on reducing presenteeism.
Underperforming employees impact a company’s bottom line but they can also cause more insidious damage. Tension and conflict with stressed, underperforming staff can impact the overall morale of teams. Sleep patterns are often the first thing affected by stress. Overtired employees may make mistakes that could have serious implications on business reputation or be easily distracted and at risk of causing accidents. Ensure a healthy relationship with team members so employees feel comfortable speaking up when they are struggling and can gain support early when they need it.
Often the challenges that lead to presenteeism have nothing to do with the workplace. Causes include financial hardship, relationship issues, illness, and mental health challenges. But when the issues are job-related, organisations have much more freedom to directly intervene, support employees, and help provide a solution.
Common job-related challenges include:
• overwhelmed by workload
• experiencing a challenging relationship in the workplace
• frustrated by blockages in the chain of command
Presenteeism is easy to spot if managers know the signs. Stressed employees may suffer from fatigue, have concentration problems, or experience inattention. They may make mistakes, have accidents, or become impatient, and have increased conflict with other team members. Pay attention and make note if something has changed. Change is a red flag and can signal that employees are struggling. If an employee has been a model team member who suddenly begins to have relational or performance problems at work, this is a strong indicator that something may be wrong.
To support team members, have a quiet, private conversation. This is the first step to finding out what your employee needs to get back on track. But addressing presenteeism directly is difficult because it’s a symptom of an underlying problem—not the problem itself. The challenge here is twofold:
- First, not all employees will want to share their personal issues with their manager and may consider it an infringement of their privacy.
2. Second, it becomes rapidly impractical—and potentially inappropriate—to keep close tabs on every detail of a large team.
However, GCC’s study found that there is a simple way to circumvent presenteeism and go straight to a solution that works for everyone—without having to get personal.
The study identified a strong correlation between an employee’s well-being (a composite of sleep, stress, and happiness responses) and presenteeism. As well-being increases, presenteeism decreases.
A critical element is a good work-life balance. But an employer cannot mandate employees into more balanced lives. But with the right approach, organisations can engage and support them in life changes that will instill renewed personal responsibility, self-belief, and increased resilience.
Studies show presenteeism responds well to short term action that tackles the underlying issues of sleep, stress, and happiness in creative ways. GCC’s 12-month health and performance programme, for example, helps employees improve their relationship with exercise, nutrition, sleep, and psychological well-being—all of which had a positive effect on reducing presenteeism. On average, each employee who participated in the programme gained the equivalent of 10 days lost time, and those who had the worst presenteeism levels before the programme improved the most.
Employers must start prioritising under-performance over absenteeism. Organisations need to create a culture where employees feel empowered to make smart choices that help them maintain balance in their lives and become more productive. Having happier, healthier, less stressed employees is not only a great human outcome, it’ll provide direct benefits to the business as well.
Dr. David Batman is chief medical officer at Global Corporate Challenge.