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Presenteeism, according to writer and comedian Joe Queenan, is:

“A situation that arises when sick employees drag their forlorn carcasses into the office and waste everyone else’s time by hacking their way through their working day on an empty tank.”

We’ve all been that forlorn carcass on one day or another, and we probably thought we’d taken our sorry selves to work for a good reason.


’Cos while presenteeism is bad for business anytime, it’s possibly deadly – and definitely expensive – during the coronavirus pandemic.

Don’t Turn Your Absenteeism Problem Into a Presenteeism One

So we’re all familiar with absenteeism – when workers pull a sickie and the organisation foots the bill. That cost $35 billion in 2019, but there are tried and true ways to bring it under control.

One thing you really don’t want to do is crack down so dramatically that you convert absenteeism into presenteeism. Just forcing workers to never take days off – ever – only creates a whole new bunch of issues.

Presenteeism costs Australian business around $34 billion a year. It can:

• Cut individual productivity by more than a third
• Force co-workers and managers to take up the slack
• Lead to poor-quality products and services
• Lead to higher rates of workplace injury from fatigue
• Spread illness among healthy workers
• Lower workplace morale.

Sure, there are ways to start calculating whether absenteeism or presenteeism is worse (like the World Health Organization questionnaire) but it’s more important to know the reasons why presenteeism is happening at your workplace.

Why Are My Staff Practising Presenteeism?

Now, more than ever, managers and employers need to be sensitive about why people would come to work (in the office or online) and not give 100%. Don’t just assume that everyone needs behaviour management training!

Right now, it’s pretty easy to guess that many workers fear for their jobs in the pandemic. In a small business, a local government office, or an Aboriginal organisation, just about everybody is worried that the next paycheque might be the last.

In normal circumstances, when you think a worker is “presenteeing”, middle and senior managers can consider:

• if Sam in Tamworth is normally that down and apathetic? Do you know of any stresses or unusual situations in Sam’s private life that might be having an impact?
• whether it’s accurate that Alex in Darwin thinks they’re indispensable and can’t possibly take a day off?
• Jordan and their injury? You’d better check whether it happened at work in Armidale, and whether it’s going to influence Jordan’s contribution in the long run.
• If Dana in Coober Pedy might be suffering a long-term mental or physical health condition? Have the two of you worked out the best way to manage that in the workplace?

You can also be aware of how you operate around health and wellness. (Your personal coach can work on this with you, too.) Ask yourself:

• Have I made the expectations clear about leave and attendance?
• Do I encourage staff to focus on their wellbeing and make sure they take time for themselves?
• Do I make sure I’m a good role model, and not at work when I really should be sleeping off that migraine?

Is Your Organisation Creating The Presenteeism Problem?

There is also one very large elephant in the room: workplace culture.

Presenteeism is more likely to happen in organisations that are demanding and competitive, or where expectations are high but job security is low.

Is there far too much work and not nearly enough hands to do it? That will also boost the number of sick workers.

Staff can also feel threatened or bullied by a harsh culture – or by superiors and peers – for not prioritising work over everything else.

If presenteeism is putting the health of the organisation and its employees seriously at risk, it might be time to put your glasses on and pay attention to that big fat elephant over there.

Moving Forward


Before you start tallying and shaming and bossing your sick workers back home, remember to look carefully at:

• The person who’s sick
• The person in charge (you!)
• The organisation’s culture around being sick
• The appropriateness of your policies and whether they need a shot in the arm

Ironically enough, you really want to make the workplace and its community so good that workers WON’T want to be there too much.