According to Woody Allen, “80 percent of success is showing up”. For some – maybe. But when it is about showing off in the office while being sick, mentally broken, or just too tired to work, it only takes the employee and the company far from success.

Presenteeism is a relatively new term that has sparked the interest of researchers only recently. Showing off at work is deeply rooted in culture as a sign of devotion, hard work, and orientation for results. But is that so? Apparently – not really.

This text covers the following:

  • The presenteeism definition – know the opponent before the clash
  • Consequences of presenteeism – also, never underestimate the threat
  • How to spot the signs of presenteeism at work – now, get ready to see if you have this problem (pro tip – you have)
  • How to measure losses due to presenteeism – if you can measure it, you can optimize it!
  • How to reduce it in the company – finally, get to know how to tackle this issue

Ready to face the dragon and slay it? Sure you are!

What is presenteeism – definition and causes

To bring the presenteeism definition – is the practice of showing up in the workplace when feeling sick, mentally exhausted, or otherwise incapable of delivering the work at full productivity. The aim of this practice is to ensure everybody around that one is working hard and is necessary.

The root cause of presenteeism is considering “being at work” working, despite the dramatic reduction in productivity or not delivering results at all.

Causes of presenteeism

There are many causes and employees’ motivations behind going to work when feeling ill or unable to perform duties. Just to name some examples:

  • Job security – the recent ADP survey (quoted by CNBC) shows that only 20% of US employees feel secure at their job. Considering that showing up every day is the way to mitigate the fear of losing a job due to absences.
  • Economic factors – there are thousands of people who simply cannot afford absences due to being paid for every hour worked or lack of paid sick leaves. This encourages going to work only to show up, even when unable to work effectively.
  • Devotion – some people just love their jobs and are unwilling to skip a day.
  • Workaholism – on the other hand, 48% of Americans consider themselves workaholics, simply addicted to their job and mentally unable to take a day off. The effects of this approach can be tragic, with Karoshi (Japanese term for “overworking death”) being initially a Japanese phenomenon, yet spreading to the rest of the world.
  • Responsibility – when it comes to jobs that come with a high level of responsibility for others, presenteeism can be seen due to moral obligations. For example, a doctor may feel obliged to take care of his or her patients, or a teacher may feel that the students cannot lose a learning day.

Presenteeism is a global phenomenon, yet there are countless culture-related factors, and by that the reasons behind this practice are probably countless. Yet the effect remains the same.


Presenteeism and absenteeism – an uneasy connection

There is also an interesting relationship between presenteeism and absenteeism. Absenteeism is simply not going to work frequently. Contrary to presenteeism, it is easy to spot and recognize at first glance – the employee is simply absent.

According to the Journal of Organizational Behavior, the factors that increase presenteeism also tend to increase absenteeism, and these two situations are closely related. The difference is in the availability of research papers and studies regarding the former. The latter has been of interest to management researchers and theorists for a long time due to being obvious, while the second one has been measurable only since the digitalization of work.

Impact of presenteeism – is working while sick really OK?

It may appear that if the employee is in the workplace, everything is fine. And that was basically the approach seen for years before. Since companies and researchers can take a deeper look at productivity, there have been found numerous disadvantages of simply “being at work” instead of working or resting.

Productivity loss

As mentioned earlier, the elusive nature of presenteeism makes it harder to spot. Yet Harvard Business Review has roughly estimated that this practice costs the US economy up to $150 billion a year in productivity losses.

Hurting team morale

Seeing a not-working or even sick employee in the workplace makes others unwilling to work hard. Either it is caused by the lack of motivation (one is not working, yet still gets paid) or due to fear of getting infected with the disease he or she carries.

Bad company culture

Presenteeism is a clear sign that the company has an antiquated approach of “being at work” instead of working and delivering results. The risks associated with not being at the office were considered so rough that employees were more willing to suffer at the office than to take a day off.

Higher turnover

Bad culture results in employees being unwilling to stay at the company for a longer time. Especially when there is a culture of working while experiencing health problems or being exhausted – and even showing off with that!

Workplace epidemics

This threat has been even more significant since the COVID-19 epidemic, when spreading contagious diseases started to be socially unacceptable. According to the research done at the University of Arizona, even if there are only a few infected employees, during the typical working day at the office, germs are present on half of the surfaces available in the office, making the spread much easier. This means that one presentee with the flu makes a whole office cough and sneeze in a matter of a week.

Exhaustion and burnout

Last but not least – presenteeism is a short way to burnout, with an employee delivering little to no results yet working on the verge of capacity, getting no time to recover and get better.

How to spot presenteeism in your organization

Presenteeism’s goal is to not be spotted – one will be at work while being unable to. Yet what makes presenteeism distinctive from simple slacking is the goodwill (or lack of choice) of the employee, who wishes no harm to the company.

The best way to spot presenteeism is to be emphatic and mindful of the employees. This makes the role of manager or team leader of great significance.

Just to name the red flags, here is a short checklist:

☐ Making more mistakes than usual – a specialist who starts to make rookie mistakes is clearly not at best.

☐ Apathy or detachment feeling – when suffering from illness or being mentally broken, one rarely cares about workplace efficiency.

☐ Missing breaks or working over hours – presenteeism’s goal is to show how hardworking one is. Working longer than usual can be a sign that either the work usually done on time cannot be delivered and longer hours are required, or one feels that there is a need to “show off more.”

☐ Sickness – coughing, sneezing, and runny nose are clear signs that there is a need for a blanket and hot tea, not the desk and armchair in the office.

☐ High tiredness, exhaustion – the employee may seem too tired, overworked, or otherwise exhausted. It is rarely possible to deliver great results in such conditions.

☐ Missing meetings, both on-site and virtual – as mentioned above, spotting the signs of presenteeism requires observation. Avoiding the occasion to be observed is a sign that employees can struggle with some challenges, and simply asking about the cause can be a sign of caring and empathy.

The silent and hardest-to-spot effect of presenteeism is productivity loss. Yet this comes with an additional challenge of measuring productivity. If the company runs some workshops on evaluation sessions where the employee delivers reports on his or her productivity, a sudden slide is a red flag not to be overlooked.

How to measure presenteeism

As mentioned above, presenteeism reduces productivity, so to measure presenteeism, the company needs to measure productivity in the first place. This can be done, for example, by:

  • Number of tasks delivered in a certain time – this can be helpful when the nature of work is flexible and task-related
  • The work-related metric shown in the time – this metric applies to specialists and engineers whose work can be measured by specific metrics, for example, bugs, alerts, or calls, if applicable.
  • The product-related outcome in time – some positions just deliver hard effects, for example, a text written or an image is drawn. This is the perfect measurement of productivity.

Having this measurement in place, the company probably owns the average values of productivity. If there are any significant changes – it is a clear sign that something is happening and requires attention. If productivity spikes, it shouldn’t go unnoticed and unrecognized. If it drops, it is a sign of trouble and also requires attention.

If the company owner wishes, the average productivity can be compared with the lower productivity to spot the difference. With that, the hourly wage of the employee is a basis for counting the losses due to presenteeism.

If the position can be directly measured using the business outcome, the estimation is even more accurate. Programmers whose job is billed to clients are perfect examples.



Adam is a salesman who usually makes 50 calls a week, bringing $1000 in sales weekly. Yet this week, he decided to go to the office despite his runny nose, sore throat, and coughing. This condition made speaking harder and resulted in making only 30 calls this week and bringing in $500 in sales.

Thus, the productivity loss is either 40% (calls) or 50% (business results). If Adam’s condition would prolong, the losses will stack and further damage the business. Also, Adam can infect his colleagues, and by that, the productivity of the rest of the sales team will drop.

Another way to measure presenteeism is by running employee surveys on their well-being and general condition. Assuming that the answers are sincere and employees feel secure at work, this method gives the opportunity to find people who are ever-present despite feeling bad and exhausted.

How to reduce presenteeism

Presenteeism is hard to spot and even harder to measure. Yet luckily, preventing it is the easiest. As mentioned in the causes of presenteeism, the reasons are usually culture and approach-related, not caused by some hard, unavoidable factors. Thus, it is the role of a business owner and the Human Resources Department to build a culture that mitigates the risk of presenteeism.

Communicate and enforce the company policy

The company policy needs to be designed to support employee well-being, and this includes encouraging to take a day off or not work long hours if it is not necessary. Repeating and ensuring that showing off at work brings no benefits is the way to tackle the challenge. Also, a good way to avoid presenteeism is to include the remote work and flexible working policies in the company.

Set the example, make managers set the example

Communicating the policy brings no advantages if the business owner and management are present every day, despite coughing and sneezing, or are half-dead over a pile of documents, with a clear sign of burnout. Being a boss is not an excuse to overlook own mental health and affect the whole company with poor health-induced productivity loses.

Set the example and make managers set the example. Take time off when needed and never come sick to work.

Provide healthcare and wellness benefits

Paid sick leave is a way to encourage employees to take sick leave. Providing healthcare and wellness benefits, for example, an additional day off, encourage to put on emphasis on well-being.

Review workloads and plan with care

Presenteeism may be caused by the amount of work to do and the feeling of responsibility. Sometimes a wild run is required, yet a wild run (or crunch) cannot be the working way. Planning the schedule accordingly to resources is vital to avoid burnout and multiple other hurting factors.

Stay vigilant

Last but not least – spotting and preventing presenteeism is about showing care. So stay vigilant, and if the employee is sick or tired at work – never miss that and encourage them to go home and take a rest.


Presenteeism is creeping into the shadows, draining productivity with the illusion of everything being in perfect condition. The article above has delivered a guide on how to spot it, how to measure and how to prevent it from happening in the company.

The key is always in building human-first workplace culture, with real care and being interested in employee physical and mental well-being.


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