Presenteeism in the Workplace: The 5 Hidden Causes For Productivity Drain

Presenteeism in the Workplace: The 5 Hidden Causes For Productivity Drain

It is not uncommon for managers to observe employees who seem physically present at work but lack full engagement or mental presence in their tasks and responsibilities. They may be experiencing presenteeism in the workplace. Presenteeism is a phenomenon that occurs when employees are physically present at work but are not fully engaged or productive due to illness, stress, or other reasons which affects the company culture.

In this blog post, we will explore the causes of presenteeism in the workplace and the effects of presenteeism on productivity, morale, and health. We will also discuss how presenteeism differs from absenteeism. Lastly, we will explore ways to reduce presenteeism in the workplace by adding mental health support, educating managers and employees about the downsides of presenteeism in the workplace, and learning to recognize the signs of presenteeism early on.

What is Presenteeism?

Presenteeism refers to a situation where employees come to work physically but are not fully engaged, productive, or focused due to various factors. Despite being present, they may be dealing with health issues, stress, personal problems, or other distractions that hinder their ability to perform optimally. Presenteeism in the workplace can result in reduced productivity, lower quality of work, increased errors, and negative impacts on overall employee well-being and organizational performance.

Explaining Presenteeism in the Workplace through Real-Life Scenarios

For instance, Emma spends most of her workday browsing social media, shopping online, and engaging in personal activities, neglecting her actual work responsibilities. Her lack of focus and productivity demonstrates presenteeism and negatively impacts her performance. This shows excessive personal internet use which causes presenteeism in the workplace.

A scenario where David frequently delays starting his tasks and consistently puts off important assignments. Despite being physically present, he engages in time-wasting activities, causing a decrease in productivity and contributing to presenteeism in the workplace which shows prolonged procrastination that effects productivity.

Despite feeling unwell, Mark comes to work and pushes through his tasks. He is visibly fatigued, coughing, and sneezing, but avoids taking sick leave. His presenteeism in the workplace risks prolonging his illness and potentially spreading it to others.

Causes of presenteeism in the workplace

Presenteeism in the workplace, a phenomenon where employees come to work but are not fully engaged or productive. This includes an overwhelming workload, inadequate work-life balance, and a culture of micromanagement. These factors create an environment that encourages employees to be physically present but hinders their overall well-being and performance. These stressors contribute to reduced productivity, higher levels of employee burnout, increased healthcare expenditures, and a decline in overall employee morale. Some causes of presenteeism in the workplace are listed below.

Limited sick leave

Limited sick leave can contribute to presenteeism in the workplace, as employees may feel compelled to come to work even when they are unwell. Employees with restricted sick leave policies are more likely to exhibit presenteeism behaviors, leading to decreased productivity and potentially spreading illnesses to colleagues. Organizations with more generous sick leave policies had lower levels of presenteeism compared to those with limited sick leave entitlements. Therefore, providing sufficient sick leave benefits can help mitigate presenteeism, promote employee well-being, and maintain a healthier workforce.

For instance, Sarah works as a project manager in a demanding software development company. The company’s sick leave policy allows only five days of paid sick leave per year. Unfortunately, Sarah contracts a severe case of the flu, which requires at least a week of rest and recovery. However, due to the limited sick leave available to her, Sarah feels pressured to come to work despite her illness. She fears that taking additional time off could result in disciplinary action or even loss of her job. As a result, Sarah shows up to work, albeit physically present, but she is visibly unwell, fatigued, and unable to concentrate fully.

Job insecurity

When employees feel uncertain about their job security, they may prioritize attendance over their health and personal needs. The anxiety of losing their source of income can increase stress and negatively impact productivity and well-being, causing presenteeism in a workplace.

For instance, James works in a manufacturing company that has been experiencing financial difficulties. The company recently went through a round of layoffs, and there are rumors of more to come. James is worried about his job security and fears being one of the next employees to be let go. In order to demonstrate his dedication and commitment to the company, James feels compelled to show up to work even when he is not feeling well. He believes that taking a sick day might give the impression that he is not fully invested in his role, potentially putting his job at risk. The underlying job insecurity and fear of losing his position contribute to James engaging in presenteeism.

Workforce culture

The culture within the workforce significantly impacts the occurrence of presenteeism in the workplace, as it affects how employees feel about taking time off for illness or mental health. A toxic work environment and lack of support from the manager and coworkers can create pressure to work through sickness, meet deadlines, or work long hours which in turn causes such a workforce culture. This causes high levels of presenteeism in the workplace.

Increase in Workload

When employees face an increase in workload, they may feel overwhelmed and stressed, leading to anxiety and negative workforce atmosphere which in turn, causes presenteeism in a workplace. When faced with a heavier workload, employees may feel pressured to be physically present to ensure tasks are completed on time. They may prioritize meeting deadlines over taking necessary time off to recover from illness or address personal well-being. If employees believe that there is insufficient support or resources to handle the increased workload, they may feel obligated to be present to compensate.

Presenteeism and absenteeism

Employee productivity in a workplace is related to two concepts- presenteeism and absenteeism. Presenteeism in a workplace happens when employees show up for work but are not fully productive owing to stressors such as illness or personal problems. Absenteeism in a workplace refers to missing work completely for similar reasons. Presenteeism in a workplace results in higher costs than than absenteeism. When employees come to work while not fully engaged or functioning at their best, their productivity levels may significantly decrease.

Presenteeism in a workplace can compromise the quality of work produced. When employees are not feeling well or mentally present, their ability to deliver high-quality work may be compromised, resulting in errors, rework, or dissatisfied customers. They may struggle to focus, make more mistakes, and take longer to complete tasks, leading to reduced output and overall efficiency. Hence, addressing the root causes of presenteeism in a workplace by promoting a healthy workplace culture and offering mental health support could lessen its negative consequences on workforce productivity.

Comparison between Presenteeism and Absenteeism in a workplace using Real-Life Scenarios

Presenteeism scenario: Sarah, an employee at a marketing agency, has been dealing with chronic back pain for several months. Despite the pain, she continues to come to work every day, fearing that taking time off would negatively impact her reputation and job security. However, her presenteeism hinders her performance as she struggles to concentrate, misses deadlines, and requires frequent breaks. The persistent pain takes a toll on her physical and mental well-being, leading to decreased productivity and job dissatisfaction.

Absenteeism scenario: John, a software engineer, wakes up one morning with a severe flu. Recognizing the need for rest and recovery, he informs his supervisor and takes the next three days off to recuperate. During his absence, his team members cover his workload, ensuring projects progress smoothly. Upon returning to work, John is fully recovered, focused, and able to contribute effectively, avoiding the risk of spreading the illness to his colleagues.

In this comparison, Sarah’s presenteeism negatively impacts productivity, as she continues to work despite her health condition, resulting in reduced output and performance. On the other hand, John’s decision to take time off and practice absenteeism allows for a faster recovery and avoids potential disruptions or contagion in the workplace. While both presenteeism and absenteeism can have implications for productivity, presenteeism often leads to prolonged productivity issues, decreased engagement, and potential negative effects on overall employee well-being.

Cost of presenteeism in a workplace

Reduced productivity and engagement among workforce are some of the negative consequences of the presenteeism culture prevalent at workplaces. When employees engage in presenteeism, their reduced productivity can have a direct impact on team performance. Managers may notice lower output, missed deadlines, and a decrease in overall team efficiency.

Dealing with presenteeism places an additional burden on managers. They may need to spend time addressing performance issues, managing absenteeism due to prolonged illnesses, and providing extra support to employees struggling with their health. This diverts their attention from strategic tasks and core responsibilities, resulting in reduced managerial effectiveness.

A culture that tolerates presenteeism can contribute to employee disengagement and low morale. When employees feel compelled to come to work while unwell, they may experience increased stress, exhaustion, and job dissatisfaction. Managers have the responsibility to identify signs of presenteeism, address the underlying causes, and create a supportive work environment to improve employee morale and engagement.

Lost productivity

Loss in productivity is a significant component of the cost of presenteeism in the workplace. When employees show up for work while not fully engaged or functioning at their best, it can have detrimental effects on their productivity and overall output. Employees experiencing presenteeism may find it challenging to work at their usual pace. They may experience physical discomfort or mental fog, which can lead to decreased efficiency and slower progress on assignments. These distractions further contribute to decreased productivity levels.

Spread of sickness

The spread of sickness through presenteeism in the workplace, particularly in relation to communicable diseases, has gained significant attention in the post-Covid pandemic era. Presenteeism can contribute to the spread of communicable diseases within the workplace. Employees who come to work while ill, including those with contagious illnesses, can unknowingly transmit the disease to their colleagues.

In the post-pandemic era, organizations and society as a whole have become more aware of the importance of preventing the transmission of contagious diseases. Presenteeism can undermine these efforts and contribute to the overall burden of communicable diseases on public health. Implementing strategies to minimize the spread of sickness through presenteeism in the workplace can help managers ensure the health of their workforce, demonstrate empathy and care towards their employees, foster a sense of security and loyalty, and establish healthier working practices for the entire team.

Lower morale

Presenteeism in a workplace can cause a decline in employee morale, especially for those dealing with health or personal problems. The pressure to show up at work even when feeling unwell can create a negative environment that affects the entire workplace.

How to reduce presenteeism

Combatting presenteeism in the workplace requires a proactive approach and the implementation of effective strategies such as promoting and prioritizing work-life balance by offering flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting or flexible scheduling, creating a culture that values employee well-being and supports open communication, offering sufficient and flexible sick leave policies that allow employees to take time off when needed without fear of disciplinary action or loss of job security and providing training to managers and team leaders on recognizing signs of presenteeism in a workplace by promoting work-life balance, and addressing employee well-being.

Add mental health support

In the bustling workplace, a quiet struggle often goes unnoticed. It’s the battle within, where employees grapple with their mental health while trying to show up every day. But enlightened organizations have realized that to combat presenteeism, they must embrace a holistic approach that includes mental health support. Through initiatives like confidential counseling services, mindfulness programs, and mental health training, they create a nurturing environment where employees can prioritize their well-being without fear or stigma. By fostering empathy, understanding, and providing the necessary resources, these organizations forge a path towards reduced presenteeism, stronger employee loyalty, and a culture that values the whole person, not just their presence.

Teach managers about presenteeism

Educating managers on the basics of workplace environment, a situation where employees attend work but are unproductive due to illness, stress or other factors. Training can help create a workplace that prioritizes employee well-being and productivity by encouraging open communication and support from managers. Implementing flexible work options like telecommuting, flextime, or compressed workweeks will allow employees to better manage personal obligations which promotes a healthier work-life balance.

Educate employees about the downsides of presenteeism

Educating employees about the negative consequences of presenteeism is essential in creating a more productive workforce. Encouraging employees to take sick leave when necessary is crucial in reducing the spread of sickness and preventing further decrease in employee morale. Managers can implement strategies to reduce workplace stress through workload management and providing resources for stress reduction techniques.

Additionally, conducting regular one-on-one meetings with team members allows managers to understand their concerns and offer support. Practicing active listening during these interactions helps employees feel heard and validated. Educating employees about the downsides of presenteeism, including the negative impact on productivity and well-being, raises awareness and encourages behavior change. Moreover, teaching about work-life balance and modeling healthy habits as a leader sets a positive example for employees to prioritize their well-being and avoid the trap of presenteeism.


Presenteeism in the workplace can be a silent and hidden productivity drain, affecting both the employee’s health and the company’s bottom line. It is important to understand that this is not just about showing up physically but also being mentally present at work. It is crucial to keep an eye out for signs of discouragement in your workplace and take proactive steps to address them. This includes creating a healthy work culture, providing mental health support, educating managers and employees about the downsides of presenteeism, and learning how to spot the effects in the workplace. To learn more about how to balance presenteeism and absenteeism in your workplace, read our blog on strategies to reduce presenteeism.

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How Do You Identify Presenteeism In The Workplace?

To spot this negative aspect in a workplace, keep an eye out for employees who come in sick or stay late without reason. Watch for signs of distraction, lack of motivation, or disengagement. Keep track of productivity levels and conduct anonymous surveys to gauge the extent of the issue in your workplace.

Is an individual who works from home while he or she is sick exhibiting presenteeism?

Working from home while sick is a form of presenteeism in the workplace, where one is physically present but not performing at full capacity due to illness. This can lead to decreased productivity and the spread of illness. Employers should encourage sick employees to take time off to prevent presenteeism in the workplace.

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