A new word is doing rounds of HR Departments in the corporate world – Presenteeism!

Sudhir Pai

Presenteeism is loss of workplace productivity due to employee health problems and or personal issues. Even though the employee is physically present at work; since they are experiencing health issues or are low on Wellness, they are unable to fully perform their work duties and are more likely to make errors / delays / inconsistencies in the work they do and as a result also create anxiety and conflict at the workplace.

The concept of presenteeism has been discussed and researched worldwide since the 1980s mainly in the social sciences and business literature. Unlike its counterpart absenteeism which has received far more attention, presenteeism has not yet made a significant entrance into the health care space.

Absent employees for sure cost money to Organizations, but what about unwell employees that come to work? As a simple example of presenteeism, an un-well employee is likely to spread the infection to co-workers and even clients. However the negative consequence of presenteeism is “not” mere spreading of infection, it is far more unbelievable than that; they devastate the working environment and work-culture!

It isn’t hard to imagine any of the following conditions at the workplace:

  • ego clash between two Line Managers
  • an employee,wrongly, ‘feeling’ victimized by his / her supervisor or peers
  • an employee under significant work pressure, losing sleep and appetite and thereby loosing concentration & focus at work
  • employee loses self esteem watching his / her peers perform better than himself / herself
  • an employee not being able to remember the instructions given by the supervisor and thereby causing errors or even blunders at work

What do you think such conditions do to the Organizations? It damages its productivity and profitability significantly, not to mention the work environment.

The above sentiments of anger, jealousy, hatred, helplessness, poor memory retention and the likes are not just the personality or makeup of an individual; they represent an un-healthy condition or state of poor Wellness of that individual. One could argue that these are attitudes and behaviors of individuals; however, the interesting fact is attitude, behavior and health are all apparently intertwined.

A study by KPMG Econtech in Australia found that the biggest contributors to the overall productivity loss caused by presenteeism are depression (21%), allergies (17%), hypertension (13%), diabetes (12%); the other contributors being Asthma (7%), Back, neck or spinal problems (7%), Migraine/headache (5%), Heart Disease (4%), Arthritis (4%), Any Cancer (4%), Eczema or other skin conditions (3%) and Respiratory Disorders (3%).

The main causes of presenteeism are unhealthy lifestyles, poor work-life balance and high levels of job-related stress. These causes have a direct effect on both the quality and quantity of work undertaken by employees. For example, work output of an employee may work much less than usual, he / she could make more mistakes or tend to create re-work. This reduction in work productivity translates to increased costs for employers.

The Hidden Costs of Presenteeism

Presenteeism costs Organizations dearly! With Indian data lacking, let us take a look at US of A – The total cost of presenteeism to US employers has been increasing, and estimates for current losses range from about $150 to $250 billion annually.

Presenteeism costs are a real and potentially significant drain on a company’s financial well-being. Researchers say that presenteeism can cut employee productivity by one-third or more.

Presenteeism can even be more costly than absenteeism because the unproductive employee may detract co-workers’ from performing as well.

Unlike absenteeism, presenteeism isn’t always visible: You know when someone doesn’t show up for work, but you often can’t tell when—or how much—illness or a medical condition is hindering someone’s performance. By the looks of it, an analogy can be drawn to an iceberg where the more visible portion of work loss (absenteeism) is a small fraction of that portion which is beneath the surface (presenteeism).


Many of the medical problems that result in presenteeism are, by their nature don’t appear to be serious. (After all, more serious illnesses will certainly force people to stay home from work, even if it is for extended periods). This does not mean that higher productivity loss can be avoided if people were advised not to show up for work when they are ill, but rather indicates that while productivity loss from absenteeism may be high, productivity loss from presenteeism is probably even higher, because it is more prevalent then absenteeism, but much less accounted for.

If you’re a HR professional, it’s time to make the management and all line managers aware of this problem and the fact that the costs of presenteeism are rising. A business that ignores the problem of presenteeism is a business which would very well allow it to adversely affect its profitability. Employers need to make a concerted effort to develop a workplace with healthy and highly functioning employees.

What can employers do?

By investing in holistic healthcare & wellness programs for its staff, employers can reduce presenteeism rates, thereby improving productivity and, in the long-term, generating a positive impact on business bottom line. The main steps that Companies can take to address the issue of presenteeism and improve their employees’ productivity are:

  • Creating awareness: The first step in addressing presenteeism is to be aware of the problem and accept the economic impact of people health issues and low levels of wellness on business.
  • Identification / assessment: Get to know particular health issues affecting employees, through a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) programs to improve their (corporate) health.
  • Edification: Educate employees to ensure that silent ailments don’t remain undiagnosed / untreated. Also, educate employees on lifestyle management in order to prevent and manage ailments and diseases.

Addressing presenteeism not only helps in reducing productivity loses, but also offers Organizations an opportunity to develop programs for supporting and improving the level of its employees health and wellness. The programs include:

  • health risk assessments for collection and analysis of health-related data of employees that helps to evaluate the health status or health risk of an employee. This facilitates to determine the risk of developing chronic, silent, lifestyle diseases now found in younger employees with increasing frequency.
  • employee assistance programs customized for employees and their families
  • wellness programs which foster healthy practices and maintain a clear balance amongst the five dimensions of wellness i.e. Physical, Mental, Social, Intellectual and Spiritual well being.

About Sudhir: After 24+ years in the corporate world handling Country Leadership roles with P&L responsibilities, Sudhir has started as an entrepreneur venture in the space of sales consultancy & training. With the growing need for the right healthcare and wellness programs in India, Sudhir has joined a team of ethical medical practitioners to make a difference in the way healthcare is managed and delivered in India.

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