When Showing Up is a Drag on Productivity


Woody Allen, the actor, comedian and playwright and whose career spans more than 50 years, once said that 80 per cent of success in life can be attributed to simply “showing up”. However, a growing body of research indicates this estimate may be somewhat optimistic.

People are increasingly going to work when they are ill, especially at those organisations with a culture of working long hours, according to new research done in the UK. A survey of 600 employers found almost a third reported a rise in so-called “presenteeism” — the voluntary act of attending work although sick.

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said companies where workers still go to work, even when ill, are more likely to be hit by either stress-related absence or mental health problems among staff. The study also found workers invariably attended work while sick in instances where long working hours were seen as the norm, or where operational demands took precedence over employee well-being.

So a question for you. Would you feel the need to go to work even if you were ill?

Jeremy is an accountant in a pharmaceutical company where they receive no pay for the first three days off work. Consequently, even if he is sick, he will still go into work and thereby possibly infect his colleagues. It is true the company’s attendance figures may be high but they are certainly not working in the interests of their employees or building a healthy corporate culture.

Businesses need to address ‘presenteeism’ as well as absenteeism.

So what about the cultural trends of your organisation?

  • Does your organisation have a high attendance record because employees are fearful of their jobs if they take a day off?
  • Is the culture of your company one where people are expected to work through illness because the CEO does?
  • Do your staff think they are demonstrating their commitment by turning up for work feeling ill — notwithstanding that their work will be substandard?

Of course, it is much easier to monitor absenteeism, rather than presenteeism but this can lead to a misleading picture and employers and managers need to better understand the link between the two.

For example, presenteeism can often lead to absenteeism, so by managing one you may be able to reduce the other. The way to identify a culture of presenteeism can be to introduce employee satisfaction surveys and regular staff performance reviews.

* Train managers to recognise the warning signs

Employees are often reluctant to admit a health problem because of concerns about the consequences. However, where an organisational culture encourages openness about health issues, then absenteeism and presenteeism can be reduced dramatically. In essence, managers should reward people for the work they deliver as opposed to the hours worked.

For managers to be able to recognise the warning signs, they need to be trained to identify poor performance indicators that could be a sign of ill health or stress.

  • Review your sickness policy
  • The organisational policy should be fair and reasonable and not penalise an employee if they are unwell by making deductions from salary.
  • Health and well-being workshops for employees

There is nothing that succeeds like physical and mental health education and you will reap the benefits of healthier employees if they are taught how to look after themselves.

In a situation where an employee comes to work because he or she is apprehensive as to the consequences of being absent, there is the potential to cause personal health damage to both themselves and to the company in terms of lower productivity and substandard work. Therefore, a culture that fails to recognise the welfare of its employees by actively discouraging absence when sick can be a very expensive option indeed.

Investment in terms of the health and well-being of employees will pay measurable dividends, in the long run.

A culture that overtly takes steps to maintaining a healthy workplace environment and a genuine concern for employee welfare is invariably an organisation that succeeds in its mission statement and is successful in staff retention, low absenteeism and competitive advantage. Operational demands are achieved by a human resource that is valued.

Key points

  • Workers who are sick should not be working.
  • Presenteeism is a sign of a defective corporate culture.
  • Successful organisations know the importance of employee health.

The writer is CEO of an international stress management consultancy and the author of ‘Show Stress Who’s Boss!’.


Author of "Show Stress Who's Boss" Carole is a leading authority on workplace stress, sought after BBC guest-Broadcaster and motivational speaker. She shows managers and staff how to maintain their competitive advantage by achieving a healthy work life balance.

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