5 ways to “presenteeism-proof” your organization

As you learned in Part 1 of this article, presenteeism is a complex phenomenon with a diverse range of drivers. It can cut across your entire organization, regardless of seniority and job role, therefore – like so many deep-rooted organizational challenges – a top-down approach is essential to ensure lasting change.

This, paired with training HR and team-leads to recognize presenteeism and reach out to affected employees with sensitivity, will go a long way towards keeping your people and business healthy. 

1 – Leaders must model healthy behavior

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: mental health starts at the top. Senior management must set an example to employees by taking sick leave or time off from work if they are physically or mentally unwell. 

In addition, leaders should be asking themselves regularly: how can I make it not just physically, but psychologically, safe for my people to work here every day? This approach is both a cornerstone of human-centered leadership and required by government regulation in most countries.

Last but certainly not least, leaders must smash the stigma around mental health by opening up about their own challenges – just as these remarkable CEOs have done. 

2 – (Re-)Evaluate company policy

Working together, HR and senior management should ensure that company policy ideally: 

  • Offers flexible working hours
  • Allows employees who are unwell (mentally and/or physically) adequate time off 
  • Supports employees with mental health and wellness benefits

3 – Educate team-leads

It’s essential that managers understand what presenteeism is – its causes, dangers, and warning signs. (Part 1 of this article, 10 signs your employees are engaged in presenteeism, provides a comprehensive overview.) 

As the main touchpoint for their teams, managers play a critical role in curbing presenteeism – both by setting an example through leaving the office and logging off when the work day is done and by being alert to signs of employees struggling. 

Team-leads can nevertheless be susceptible to blindspots when it comes to some employee behaviors which fuel presenteeism. Psychologists call these blindspots “unconscious biases” for a reason: people are unaware of their responses at a rational level – and this naturally also makes such responses difficult to combat.

Knowledge is power however, and educating managers on these topics is an important first step towards prevention. Some examples are listed below.

Performative presenteeism: 

Employees understand that team-leads respond positively to their being present, and this can lead them to come into the office when unwell – especially if they see their peers doing the same. This behavior tends to become more prevalent in times of economic instability when workers have job security fears and want to demonstrate that they are “indestructible” or “indispensable”.

Workers who come into the office early or stay late subtly pressure others to do the same, setting a precedent that may not only be mentally and physically detrimental, contributing to presenteeism, but also offer an advantage to those whose schedules – or even biological rhythms – allow them to show up early and leave late.

To counter this, experts suggest adopting clear metrics to measure productivity that go beyond “who leaves the office last” or “who’s responding to emails at dawn”.

The ‘mere-exposure effect’: 

Researchers have found that the more a person is exposed to someone or something, the more they start to develop affinity. In office terms, this can mean that if an employee simply makes themselves more visible, their boss may unconsciously give them preferential treatment. 

Proximity bias: 

Very similar to the ‘mere-exposure effect’, leaders also tend to extend opportunities to people they see more often, sometimes unconsciously assuming they are better workers merely by virtue of the copious face time they have with them. 

The ‘halo effect’: 

People tend to associate positive impressions of someone with their actual character, meaning that even if it’s just someone on the team bringing in delicious home-baked treats every week, believe it or not, it may subtly influence the team-lead in their favor with regard to work topics.  

A note on remote teams:

Presenteeism also exists on remote teams – in fact, it can even be more insidious with employees feeling the need to “prove” their presence more and finding it difficult to strike a healthy work-life balance from their home office.

Team-leads can support remote team members by setting clear and realistic workload expectations and maintaining regular communication with them. Checking on their mental wellbeing, making time for socializing, and rewarding them with some time off – even if they aren’t having any noticeable issues – can also be helpful.

4 –  Investigate without being intrusive

As a leader, if you notice presenteeism in a team member, you’ll of course need to try to get to the bottom of its causes sensitively. Our “Corporate Sanity Guide” offers expert advice on how to open and engage in mental health conversations. 

  • Rule number 1: before making any assumptions or suggestions, ask questions and listen well to the answers. If it becomes clear someone is struggling with a mental health issue, consider that the affected employee might appreciate some time off to recharge their batteries, a new role to spark their enthusiasm, or support through a wellbeing program. 
  • Rule number 2: it’s critical to emphasize that being absent because of ill health – whether physical or mental – will not affect an individual’s standing at work.

Conducting regular mental health surveys – even in an anonymized form – is a great way to assess how team members are doing and get insights into what, if any, improvements they would like to see made to support mental health and wellbeing. 

6 – (Re-)Consider how you measure productivity

All signs point to the fact we are in the midst of a global mental health crisis that has no end in sight. As workplace mental health researchers recently bluntly put it in the Harvard Business Review: “The way we’re working isn’t sustainable, and it’s hurting our mental health.” The Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” may be just the first waves of a transformation that’s even more fundamental – and expensive – for organizations.  

An issue so deeply rooted in both culture and processes as presenteeism requires “a top-down overhaul of what’s valued in the workplace and why”. 

Adam Smith, an 18th-century economist considered one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, asserted that human beings were lazy by nature and that the only way to motivate them was through incentivizing.

Scholars in motivational science have long since proved his hypothesis wrong, and found that the systems of working we inherited from the industrial era – “micro-measuring and micro-managing employees’ performance” – when transferred to the knowledge economy are detrimental to “engagement, resilience, happiness, and productivity itself”.

Yet in the knowledge economy, it’s also much “squishier” to define what output looks like. Presenteeism experts suggest leaders start by considering what their teams are going to be working on over the next month or quarter in terms of raw performance, then ask themselves: “What are my baseline expectations, and who is going above and beyond them’?” 

As behavior that is potentially a profound health hazard in the workplace and has an economic impact in the billions, presenteeism at the scale it has now reached has become a public health matter. Your only resource is human.

Start tackling presenteeism by trusting that your people want to find satisfaction and enjoyment in their work – then do your work: ask them what they need to feel motivated, engaged, and healthy, and take the necessary steps to make it happen.

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