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Why Absenteeism and Presenteeism Matter More Now Than Ever
by Katie Stearns
December 19, 2022

Employee wellness has always played a part in employee engagement, productivity, and overall success. But given the current circumstances—namely Covid-19, the worldwide pandemic that’s thrown every person and company for a loop—it’s more important than ever. With anxiety and depression levels on the rise since the outbreak, this is a moment for managers and leaders to step up, promote resilience, and look out for their employees.

There are many ways to support an employee’s well-being and measure their overall engagement and happiness. Here we look at absenteeism and presenteeism to understand why these two workplace issues are key indicators when measuring employee wellbeing, actionable steps managers can take, as well as a few stand-out examples of companies rising to the challenge. 

What is Absenteeism & Presenteeism?

Absenteeism and presenteeism, though often grouped together, are two very different issues most managers will have crossed paths with at some point in their career.



Absenteeism is defined as unplanned employee absences; in other words, when employees call in sick, have to deal with family emergencies, can’t find a babysitter, or other similar situations. Of course, we’re all human, with lives outside of work; managers should realize this and expect (and plan for) at least some level of absenteeism on their team.

Presenteeism, on the other hand, is when employees are present at work, but they’re not doing their job or being productive. This occurs when employees decide to work even when they are sick or don’t feel 100%. Presenteeism is hard to quantify because, while employees show up for work, and might even outwardly look fine, underlying health issues might be driving down their motivation and productivity.

While some managers are obsessed with calculating and managing employees’ absence rates, with a yearly cost of $150 billion in the US, presenteeism is the real sleeping dragon between the two.

What Are the Causes?

Remember, absenteeism to some degree can be expected in the office. However, if you notice abnormally high rates or trends among your employees, these factors  among others might exacerbate the issue:

  • workplace burnout
  • disengagement
  • high levels of stress
  • depression
  • lack of childcare or care for other family members
  •  injuries or illness
  • job hunting

Presenteeism, on the other hand, can be sparked by having very few or no paid sick days, heavy workloads, high employer expectations, or a demanding workplace culture. Employees feel like taking time off is not an option and normalize coming to work at 75% capacity (or less).

While the definitions of and causes behind absenteeism and presenteeism are quite different, these two issues do share a common thread: The end result is a loss of productivity.

What Can Managers Do Today?

As you might’ve already noticed, the factors listed above are more likely to have come up when working during a pandemic, meaning employees probably have higher rates of both absenteeism and presenteeism.

“Today, Americans are reporting more symptoms and signs of depression, anxiety, and fear than historic norms,” according to a Healthline article based on research from YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker.

Where does that leave managers and leaders? What steps can they take to help curb absenteeism and presenteeism and the resulting loss in employee productivity?

  • Measure absenteeism & presenteeism rates. Knowing your absenteeism and presenteeism rates is important; it can help you tap into underlying issues that you might not have even known existed. As mentioned above, measuring absenteeism rates is more straight-forward than measuring presenteeism. Context will be key here; understanding what these rates were pre-Covid-19 could help you make sense of what you’re seeing. And if you’d like to try to address high absenteeism and presenteeism rates, the steps listed below are a good place to start.
  • Freshen up on the legal requirements. As a result of the pandemic, new state and federal laws have been passed requiring actions be taken by employers. This overview touches on these new laws, which include implementing thorough work-from-home and technology policies and examining safety, hygiene, dress code, and leaves of absence.
  • Provide the structure your employees need. This is not the time to go radio silent. If you haven’t already, it’s time to review and revise your employee handbook to take Covid-19 into account. This checklist from SHRM is a great place to start when reviewing your policies. When you present the updated handbook to your employees, take the time to walk them through your decision-making process, and give them the chance to ask questions and voice their concerns. This is the moment to make sure it’s clear that their safety and wellbeing is a #1 priority. 
  • Make sure your employees feel safe. There’s no excuse for not being in the know these days and, as an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that not only do your employees know you’re aware of the latest CDC recommendations but that you’re putting them into practice. Keep your team up to date with weekly emails or create a digital bulletin board with best practices and what's been implemented in the office.
  • Empathize with employees. This new reality isn’t easy for anyone—employers included—and it might be good for your employees to hear that. Depending on your circumstances, you might even open up to your employees about your current struggles, offering the resources that are currently helping you. Professionals across the globe are finding their own ways to lead with empathy. Brian Sommer, a 2020 HR Executive tech influencer recently said in a live Twitter chat: “Reach out to employees—spend 2 hours every day on the phone or Zoom talking to different employees regardless of level—some will simply appreciate the interest and others may need your help.”
  • Find new ways to come together. If your team has gone from office workers to full- or part-time remote, you might notice team comradery is a bit lower than usual. This is a chance to find new ways to come together. Perhaps it’s an early finish on Friday to share a drink together over Zoom, or an online team-building activity before a regular meeting.

Companies Making Changes in Today’s World

As managers and leaders become more aware of presenteeism and absenteeism in the workplace—and of the debilitating effect they can have on employee wellbeing and overall productivity—many companies are making moves to improve their employee experience and combat the factors that increase absenteeism and presenteeism. Here are a few real-life examples of companies making it happen today.

  • International Truck and Engine did a study to see how allergies were affecting the company’s workforce, and they decided to offer employees a consultation with an allergist. That’s exactly how one employee there found out she’d been previously misdiagnosed and was given new medication for her allergies. The result? She’s more focused and alert than ever before, and, according to her, her productivity might’ve been affected by up to 25% before this discovery.
  • With employees with children at home in mind, KPMG has modified its current programs to include more backup care and an expanded network of childcare centers. Additionally, they’re offering their employees access to discounted tutoring, academic support, and homework assistance.
  • To cope with the sudden move to working 100% remotely, Canopy decided to refund small employee spends (think yoga balls and houseplants) that made their transition to working from home a bit smoother. They also encouraged their staff of 100 to partake in a 30-day wellness program focused on physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
  • Back in March, Truist Bank gave all employees making less than $100,000 a year a $1,200 pre-tax bonus, as well as an additional 10 days of paid leave to offset the challenges of school closings and other unexpected changes.
  • Like Truist, e.l.f. Beauty Inc. also gave its employees a $1,000 bonus in March. They’ve also extended their policy on signing off at 2 p.m. on summer Fridays to the end of the year, taking into account the fact that people are working longer hours since they’ve cut out commuting.

What works for one company may not work for another. While it’s great to get inspiration from real companies implementing changes in today’s working landscape, it’s important to look inward at your own team to identify their pain points and then find the best solution for them.

Absenteeism and presenteeism have always been workplace issues managers and leaders should’ve been aware of, but with the heightened sense of job insecurity, overall stress, and uncertainty enveloping much of today’s workforce, it’s more important to tune in now than ever.

These issues feed directly into overall employee happiness and wellness, which in turn, feeds into your team’s capacity and productivity. Though absenteeism and presenteeism might not have seemed like big concerns in the past, the difficult times we’re living in warrant a deeper look into both.

Facing tough times, businesses can either sink or swim; and while there are no guarantees, being resilient is certainly a step in the right direction. If you haven’t started yet, it’s time to take a deeper look at presenteeism and absenteeism within your own office and teams, understand what that means for you, and make the necessary changes now.

About the author
Katie Stearns
Katie is a digital marketer with a passion for managing and creating B2B content and creating efficiency.
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