Presenteeism, it’s real and it’s not a joke

You have a cold and dose yourself with Dayquil. You go to work. You’re up half the night consoling your BFF about a recent break-up. You go to work. You’re obsessing about the results of a biopsy your partner had yesterday. You go to work.

What happens when you show up for work sick, tired or pre-occupied? Do you perform at optimal levels? Of course not. This “condition” is known as presenteeism, and it’s no laughing matter. Presenteeism, according to, is “the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc., often resulting in reduced productivity.” A secondary definition is “the practice of always being present at the workplace, often working longer hours even when there is nothing to do.” We focus on the first definition here. 

A recent British study determined “UK employees lost 11.7% of their working hours due to absence (0.8%) and presenteeism (10.9%).”  (Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, 2017) The impact of both absenteeism and presenteeism is equivalent to each worker missing six productive work weeks each year, with an economic impact of £77.5 billion (or $108 billion!) a year. Disheartening to learn that presenteeism is more common, in every industry, than absenteeism and that productivity loss is getting worse each year. 

Addressing presenteeism

In the United States, where employers’ health insurance costs are increasingly becoming tied to employee health, wellness programs to help improve employee health and lower insurance costs are being deployed by more than two-thirds of employers. (SHRM, 2016) Smoking cessation programs, gym memberships, strategies to manage chronic conditions, nutrition education and incentives for annual health risk assessments are just some of the initiatives. Savvy companies are also addressing how health problems lead directly to presenteeism. For example, International Truck and Engine in Fort Wayne, Indiana offered employees free onsite consultations with an allergy specialist as part of a study of how allergies affect its employees. (HBR)

It makes sense that improved physical health leads to decreases in presenteeism. It also makes sense that programs that support psychological and emotional wellbeing also address presenteeism. In a study of mindfulness among educators, participants who engaged in mindfulness exercises were better able to manage their thoughts and behavior and were more skilled in coping, sustaining motivation, planning and problem-solving. (Poulin et al., 2008) In another study, focusing on first responders, mindfulness training was found to be beneficial to employees “who require periods of intensive physical, cognitive, and emotional demands.”  (Jha et al., 2010) Under stress, the brains of these participants showed less activity in the areas associated with emotional reactivity, anxiety and mood disorders.

Obviously, mindfulness training won’t miraculously heal someone who has a cold, food poisoning or some other physical ailment so they can function better at work. However, other causes of presenteeism, like fatigue and a distracted mind, can be addressed with mindfulness training, even if it’s for just a few minutes each day.

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Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, Financial Times, September 2017.

Jha AP, Stanley EA, Kiyonaga A, Wong L, Gelfand L.(2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory and affective experience. Emotion. 2010,10(1),54–64

Poulin PA, Mackenzie CS, Soloway G, Karayolas E.(2008). Mindfulness training as an evidenced-based approach to reducing stress and promoting wellbeing among human services professionals. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education,46,35-43.  

SHRM Research: Health and Wellness Benefits. SHRM, 2016.


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