Presenteeism – What is the problem?

Presenteeism is a serious problem in South Africa – but you must use the right definition. From the literature it is evident that researchers have three different views of what constitutes “Presenteeism”. The one getting the most attention focuses on being at work while not feeling well, the second is being at work longer than required because of insecurities and the third, and according to me, the bigger problem, is employees being at work and not doing their work for what-ever reason.

  • Is there any research/stats on presenteeism in South Africa – i.e. do we have an idea of how many employees are just clocking in to get their pay cheque?

    I could find no evidence of any solid local research on the issue being done. The references to research relates primarily to sick leave and the impact of that on productivity. It is important to note that sick leave is a benefit of most modern work places. The problem with regard to sick leave is sick leave abusers, in other words, people that “do not feel well” on a Monday, on three workdays between two long weekends and the day after “pay-day”. The impact of this is significant and is costing companies millions every year. Unfortunately these trends are not closely monitored by companies and “sick leave abusers” often get away with it. But this is a discussion for another day.

  • What are the most common factors that see an enthusiastic new employee become a present-but-not-engaged employee?

    I would change the question to What are the most common factors causing an enthusiastic new employee to become a present-but-not-engaged employee?
    New and young employees are quick to see what the dominant behaviour is and what is acceptable. We had a classical example recently. As consultants we often work on the premises of contracting companies. We employed a young bright-eyed intern to assist us on the project. The first day she was bright-eyed and walking at a brisk pace to do what needs to be done…Three days later when we arrived she was also moving at the pace of “a village cow”, earphones in the ear, totally disengaged from the work that had to be done. It took her two days to assume the disengaged behaviour of the organisation we were working in. We used the situation to explain the impact of organisation culture to her and her responsibility to take accountability of her performance and not to allow the environment dictate how she should behave.

    The answer to the question is – if the environment is toxic, the new employee will soon be as disengaged as the employees they work with. The secret is in the leaders, both formal and informal to change the way they talk to and treat their team members. If the organisation has a vibrant culture that stimulates conversations and innovation and rewards energy, most employees will not feel inclined to be “present” but do what they are supposed to do.

  • Is presenteeism most common among any particular demographic (millennials? Babyboomers?). If so – why is this?

    It is not particular to an age group, race group or gender group it is particular to an organisation type. The bigger the organisation, the bigger the incidence of presenteeism would be. If you are an entrepreneur, there is no time for presenteeism – you have to hustle no matter how you feel. The principle is simple – no work no pay – and therefore you work as much as possible as clever as possible.

    As the organisation grows, and more people are employed more and more people can clock “in” and not be “at” work. They can be outside smoking, inside having coffee with friends or at their desk on social media.

    However, if the organisation has a clear set of values that stresses the importance of accountability and people are rewarded for being accountable, the chances are less for people to be “present” but not at work.

    It is also an interesting human behavior of an “older” generation to feel that the younger generation “does not have the same commitment” as they did. I did research on employee work ethic a couple of years ago and it was rather funny to see this recurring argument consistently in business literature. A classic example is when the “hippy generation” joined the workforce they were accused of all the things the millennials are being accused of now – amongst other things that they do not work as hard as “us”…

  • What can an employer do to encourage a present employee to become an engaged employee?

    The employer should create an environment where every employee knows what their role is and how they contribute to the sustained success of the organisation. I totally support Gallup, the father of employee engagement’s philosophy that you engage people by providing them with information and creating an environment where conversations on strategic and personal issues is encouraged. To be engaged in an organisation employees need to be part of a constant conversation about:

    • What is expected of them
    • How their performance will be assessed and how they are performing according to these criteria
    • What their future is in the organisation and what growth opportunities there are for them
    • What the vision and mission of the organisation is
    • How the organisation is performing and how sustainable the business is
    • And how the organisation cares for the environment and gives back to the community.

    The impact of major change in an organisation on presenteeism cannot be over-emphasised. On the one hand people will work longer hours (i.e. be present longer) to ensure that decision makers can see they are committed and take that into consideration when they make decisions about who stays and who goes. It also enhances people huddling together to discuss their uncertainties. How do you counter-act this presenteeism – consistently provide as much information as possible about the changes and manage the performance of the people. They should realize that the organisation must remain sustainable even during change.

  • What action can an employer take against a present employee, if they do not respond to initiatives to engage them?

    To start off, there ought to be a solid on-boarding programme for all new employees to ensure that they understand the values of the business and take accountability to meet the expectations set for their role. They also need to know and understand the consequences of non-performing. The on-boarding programme should also stress the importance of a healthy lifestyle and relate it to safe behaviour. Employees ought to know that the organisation cares about them and their physical and emotional well-being. How to stay healthy ought to be part of this conversation and measures the organisation put in place, like flu injections, ought to be put into perspective.

    It is also a good idea to schedule an on-boarding session for all the employees once a year. Doing this will ensure that they stay abreast with changes in the organisation and what the organisation value. Not only will it provide up-dated information, it will also benefit organisational engagement.

  • To what degree do factors outside the workplace impact on presenteeism?

    The more positive the mindset of a country and a subset of the community is, the less the inclination would be to come to work and not meet the requirements of their role. If a person feels there is no future in the organisation or the country, why would they be committed and accountable? Perhaps this it the reason why South Africa is consistently one of the least productive countries in the world. Depression definitely has an impact on productivity.

    An interesting fact in this regard is the success of emigrants and refugees in their new country. The reason for that being that they see a new future, they want to build a better future and they are prepared to work hard to achieve that. Would they suffer from presenteeism? Never.

    Presenteeism is a condition of disengaged spoilt employees who feel they have a right to be paid, but not a responsibility to be accountable for delivering on the requirements set.

  • Is presenteeism encouraged/facilitated by labour legislation that makes it difficult to hire-and-fire?

    No, presenteeism is encouraged/facilitated by people who argue that a person who does not feel 100% tip top (on his/her standard) because of something like hay fever, a head ache or even indigestion have a right to stay at home because they will not be as productive as they should be. In an article in Harvard Business Review it is stated that coming to work with a migraine will make a person 4,9% less productive. This is an estimated loss of 30 minutes of productive time – which is far less than the time lost by smokers…

    There is no legislation that can prevent an employer to retrench a person not doing what he/she is supposed to do. The reality is that there should be processes and procedures to enable employees to perform and that includes a positive energizing organisational culture where open honest conversations are welcomed.

  • Any other comments or thoughts on the topic not covered by these questions would be welcome.

    In short, I feel the argument about presenteeism is focusing on the wrong aspect. Employees should be encouraged to life a healthy balanced life. But to argue that they must stay at home for something like hay fever or a head ache – sorry I do not think our economy will be able to survive under that weight of sick leave!