The problem with presenteeism

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Date: Sept. 6, 2013
From: Occupational Health(Issue 410)
Publisher: DVV Media International Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,661 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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The problem with presenteeism

Defining presenteeism is just the first problem in analysing its effects on workers. Dr Nerys Williams considers various opinions and studies.

Presenteeism is a hot topic. A survey by Canada Life Group Insurance in May 2013 suggested that it is rising, with 93% of staff questioned

reporting that they have attended work while ill.

But presenteeism is still an emerging area of interest and one to which much less attention has been paid than sickness absence, despite increasing evidence that it is costlier. This is because presenteeism is harder to identify, define and measure, although probably not more difficult to manage.

So what is "presenteeism" and is it always a negative thing that should be avoided?


One problem of looking at the published literature is the many definitions used, suggesting that presenteeism is understood in different ways. This makes comparing studies and determining the underlying causes of presenteeism difficult. Researchers have variously defined presenteeism as "showing up at work when sick", "being present at work but limited in some aspect of job performance by a health problem", "the measurable extent to which physical or psychosocial symptoms, conditions and disease adversely affect the work productivity of those who choose to remain in work", "working through illness and injury" and "going to work despite judging that one should have reported in sick". The latter definition may resemble the first, but it introduces the concept of individual decision making.

Presenteeism is usually described in one of three broad ways. First, it is used when people decide to go into work when they are "ill". This includes people who would like to take time off, but are unable to for a variety of reasons such as peer pressure, poor sick pay or fear of disciplinary action. Most would agree someone who is "ill" should not be at work as there may be negative consequences for themselves and others. The employee who works when sick may ultimately take more sickness absence leave, while their colleagues may catch infections from them. In industries such as the food sector the product could become contaminated, while in healthcare the quality of service to patients is affected. Being "ill" here is not the same as having "ill health" or a "health condition".

Second, the term is used to describe the impact on productivity of someone with ill health. People belonging to the group do not want to take time off. They may have a health condition, but this does...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A351382550