Managers expect employees to miss work from time to time. But when staff are working too much, there may be underlying problems that are harder to pinpoint —and harder to solve.

Absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace represent two sides of a familiar coin. Taking time off work, whether for health reasons or to take entitled leave, is baked into our employment contracts and is, in most cases, legally guaranteed. But difficulties arise when employees take more time off than managers expect, and absence becomes absenteeism.

Long term absenteeism is hard to miss, but presenteeism, on the other hand, can go undetected for a long time. Some argue that it has become more of a problem following the increase in remote working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has been a newsworthy topic for at least ten years now.

In this article, we explore the meanings of absenteeism and presenteeism, the causes and costs of each, and how tools like absence management software can help employers reduce both in their own workforces.

What are absenteeism and presenteeism?

Readers may have an instinctive understanding of what absenteeism is, although it is easy to confuse with general absence. Absence is any occasion when an employee is not at work. This may be because they are ill, have taken holiday days, or have taken other leave to look after a dependent family member, for example.

Absenteeism, however, is defined as persistent or habitual absence from work. There is a grey area here, and understanding exactly where the line is between regular absences and long-term absenteeism can be hard.

Presenteeism has multiple meanings, but it generally refers to employees being in the workplace when they either shouldn’t be or don’t have to be. The Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD), a professional body for HR workers in the UK, puts this in the context of working when they are ill. But it can also mean working excessive hours, logging on to digital systems remotely outside of working hours, or when remote employees come into a workplace ‘just to show their face’ when they could be working from home.

What are the causes of absenteeism and presenteeism?

While the causes of absence are obvious (illness, holidays, etc.), the causes of absenteeism can be more complex. If an employee is repeatedly calling in sick, this may point to a long-term physical or mental health condition. But they might be missing work because they have problems with workload, colleagues, or clients. In these cases, managers and HR may have to step in and find out where the problems lie. Some issues may be fixable, but the employee may have effectively given up and is trying to remain on the payroll until the company moves to terminate their contract. Managing long-term absence is complex, and there are several legal issues to contend with, but the CIPD has a factsheet on this topic on its website.

Presenteeism is generally driven by a desire to be seen as working hard. Coming in before, and leaving after, allotted work hours can make employees seem more diligent. Logging on from home out of hours, especially if monitored by employee monitoring software, is a similar tactic. The BBC reports that presenteeism is prevalent among junior and remote workers, who feel the need to prove that they are valuable team members when their manager might not even be in the same building or country as them.

What are the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace?

According to government data, sickness absences accounted for an estimated 149.3 million working days in 2021, which works out at 4.6 days per worker. This is relatively low—well below the seven consecutive days of sick leave, after which employees are required to provide proof of their illness

Formulas exist to measure absenteeism and its costs. These include the Bradford Factor, which was initially developed in the 1980s to help researchers understand the impact of short, frequent absences in comparison to longer ones. Some employers use this score to determine when an employee is taking ‘too much’ time off, although academics and trade unions say the practice unfairly penalises workers.

On the surface, presenteeism would appear to benefit the company. Employees are working longer hours and continuing to contribute even when sick. But this can be a fairly short-term view. Capterra research shows that work-life balance is the most important factor in job satisfaction for remote, hybrid, and in-office employees. If this balance is wrong, they will either get tired of their schedules and look for jobs elsewhere, or may end up with health conditions due to the stress of overwork. It logically follows that a culture that encourages presenteeism could eventually lead to employee burnout and future absenteeism.

How to prevent absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace

Addressing absenteeism and presenteeism in small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) relies on good management. The two phenomena are often driven by cultural factors within an organisation that encourage overwork and allow problems to linger. While an initial burst of overactivity may provide a short-term boost to the business, it’s not good for employees, team culture, and the long-term success of any organisation.

But you can’t manage what you can’t measure. A vital first step in preventing absenteeism, especially, is to understand when employees are and are not working. Depending on the size of your organisation, this may be possible without special tools, but absence management software can be useful in larger businesses. 

Absence management tools allow employees to request leave, usually through an online portal or app. Managers can track calendars for their whole team and approve or decline requests accordingly. Most tools also have functions to generate absence reports for employees, teams, or departments.

Employee monitoring software may be another good choice, though managers should exercise caution if they do decide to deploy it. According to our own research, employees are acutely aware of the benefits of monitoring for their own benefit (to ensure they are not underpaid, for example), versus the negatives of software that spies on their working habits. Employees fear that it can demotivate them, and may result in lower levels of trust and morale.

Recognise the risks of absenteeism and presenteeism in your SME

Absenteeism and presenteeism may be signs of a poorly managed organisation. Both are signs that employees do not feel they can work within the agreed boundaries of their employment contract. And they can have a negative impact on health, morale, and business performance.

While not a substitute for good leadership, absence management software can provide bosses with the data they need to make the right decisions and help teams manage leave efficiently.

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