Presenteeism is the act of turning up to the workplace while feeling unwell or unable to work properly.
Even while working remotely, presenteeism — or ‘e-presenteeism’ — continues to affect us all.
Here are the signs of e-presenteeism, why it’s damaging to our mental health, and how to combat it.
With many of us working from home and feeling like we have to be switched on at all times, e-presenteeism has become more prevalent than ever.
How can we spot the signs of e-presenteeism before it leads to burnout, and what can we do to discourage it?
What is e-presenteeism?
Broadly speaking, presenteeism is when a person turns up to the workplace but can’t function properly. We’ve all been there – waking up and feeling rough, acutely aware of the looming deadline that we’ll no doubt miss if we don’t go in.
Unfortunately, it’s on the rise.
Data from health insurer Vitality revealed that just under half (45%) of UK workers suffered from presenteeism in 2019, compared with 29% in 2014 (29%). Young workers are particularly at risk, with 55% reporting to showing up to work and not being able to perform.
And now, the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, WFH and the “always on” digital culture is fuelling a new type of presenteeism: e-presenteeism.
With businesses under significant pressure to stay productive and profitable, and at a time of economic uncertainty where jobs are difficult to come by, many of us feel as if we need to be productive and available at all times. This is harming our physical and mental health and leading to unprecedented levels of burnout.
E-presenteeism during Covid-19 – the stats
In 2020 The Mental Health Foundation and LinkedIn polled over 1,000 HR professionals with staff working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
79% of respondents believe the prolonged period of remote working, due to lockdown and social distancing restrictions, is encouraging e-presenteeism at work.
Three-quarters (75%) of respondents claim e-presenteeism could have a negative impact on employees’ mental health because it exacerbates feelings of stress, anxiety and burnout.
And 54% of managers have noticed that anxiety, burnout, isolation and loneliness have escalated in their organisation due to the impact of coronavirus on how we work.
The study also questioned over 2,000 WFH-ers on their experience of working from home during the lockdown. Most respondents (86%) said remote working was having an adverse effect on their health.
With WFH employees in the UK putting in an extra 20 hours a month on average, these findings don’t come as a surprise.
“We cannot have the same business-as-usual expectations on ourselves or of our employees,” said Chris O’Sullivan, head of business development at the Mental Health Foundation.
“There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to work full time, look after children at home and keep up our other responsibilities,” he added.
Signs of e-presenteeism include:
Working when unwell
Working longer hours than needed/ more than your paid hours
Responding to emails and calls outside of work hours
Feeling disengaged and unmotivated
Making more mistakes than usual
Low levels of productivity
Ongoing feelings of exhaustion
A deterioration in work relationships
Strategies for combating e-presenteeism
An academic article on presenteeism during the COVID-19 pandemic by Gail Kinman and Christine Grant explores the risks associated with presenteeism and offers some solutions.
“Organizations and employees should work together to establish cultural norms that encourage people to take enough time off sick to recover.
“It is possible that sickness presenteeism may become less acceptable, both socially and by organizations, due to fears of COVID-19 transmission and the need to take pre-emptive action for the collective good.
“Investing in training for supervisors and managers to help them support their staff and identify and address the early signs of stress will also be useful, possibly using the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Manager Competencies framework.
“Managers may also benefit from training in coaching techniques to facilitate critical well-being conversations with staff, whether working from home or externally.”
You can access HSE’s Manager Competencies framework on their website. Meanwhile, here are five strategies managers might find useful in the fight against e-presenteeism.
1. Scheduling regular calls and check-ins
A Gallup report from 2018 cited lack of communication and support from managers as one of the main causes of burnout at work. Checking in with employees can help both the manager and employee maintain a healthy schedule.
Notice we say “checking in” as opposed to “checking on”. If an employee feels as if they’re constantly under surveillance, it’s only going to make the e-presenteeism worse.
2. Encouraging holiday requests
Employees should be actively encouraged to take time off work during the pandemic.
Time off provides us with the chance to re-centre and maintain a sense of work-life balance. As a manager, you need to make it clear that you expect your staff to switch off from work entirely during time off.
Checking emails or catching up on work during time off should be heavily discouraged. Working during annual leave and on regular days off is known as leaveism, and it’s indicative of someone being overworked.
If you notice leavism happening in your organisation, it might be time to reassess people’s workloads.
3. Setting clear expectations
Leading by example is important when it comes to encouraging your employees to establish work-life boundaries. As a manager, you must demonstrate your commitment to sticking to work during work hours by switching off and logging out at the end of each day.
“Lack of role clarity” also featured in the Gallup report as a major contributor to burnout. During the pandemic, many of us have been taking on additional responsibilities at the expense of our own wellbeing. Has the time come to hire more staff?
4. Prioritising wellness
Prioritising the physical and mental wellbeing of your employees can help you spot the signs of presenteeism when they arise and intervene early.
Including a wellbeing clause in your company handbook – one that details the measures you have in place to safeguard the health of your employees (including emphasising that employees won’t be penalized for taking time off work) – is one thing you can do to demonstrate your commitment to the cause.
5. Sharing strategies for being “present”
Being present (or “living in the moment”) is synonymous with mindfulness. It increases our ability to communicate how well (or unwell) we’re feeling more accurately because we’re more in sync with our thoughts, emotions and sensations.
Ignoring you’re ill by distracting yourself with work isn’t “being present”. Nicole Pajer shares her tips for staying in the moment in an article for Headspace:
“It’s easy to leave work with unfinished tasks on the brain or to sit through your kid’s soccer game while thinking about taxes and bills.
“Try to make a point of not doing this by fully engaging in one task, and then completely switching over to another, while leaving the previous endeavor behind.” Visit our wellness hub for more advice on how to look after your team.