How Presenteeism Hurts Business: Using Sick Leave and Time Off to Boost Productivity

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How Presenteeism Hurts Business: Using Sick Leave and Time Off to Boost Productivity

Most people assume that the more time you spend at your job, the more work you’ll complete. Today, we know this isn’t true. We also know that spending more time can actually reduce productivity. This is especially true in the case of presenteeism, where employees are physically present but not really “there”. This happens due to illness such as a cold or flu, chronic illness, stress, sudden disasters or emergency, or even emotional turmoil such as a heartbreak. Presenteeism is also a very real problem, costing U.S. businesses an estimated $150 billion in lost work productivity each year.

While this problem is well-understood, most businesses still don’t have policies in place to create the emotionally intelligent processes that would work to combat presenteeism while boosting productivity through increased employee motivation and trust.

Practicing Emotional Intelligence

In many cases, employees will go to a manager or boss with a problem, will ask for time off, and will be denied. Leaders can also listen to clearly traumatic or problematic instances and respond with nothing. Giving time off can logically slow processes, can actually create bottlenecks, and may incur additional costs or other problems.

At the same time, if someone is focusing on something else, whether their own physical discomfort or emotional turmoil, they logically won’t be focused on work. This can result in reduced productivity, bitterness, or even decreased safety in the workplace depending on the location.

Creating a policy of emotional intelligence and recognizing other people’s needs is an important one. Here, a team leader could be trained to respond to emotional trauma with “Take a day off and recover”, giving employees room to actually process problems.

This applies to sick leave, family trouble, trauma (accidents, attempted mugging, burglary, natural disaster, etc.), and even chronic pain. Leaders should be able to recognize when an individual cannot focus or concentrate on work because of a problem, and then simply give them time to cope with that.

Developing Secondary Measures

While it’s nice to be able to say that employees can take time off whenever they need it, this can be difficult to allow for inside of small organizations and small teams. Taking a single key person out of play can result in bottlenecks and delays. How do you compromise?

This often requires creating business processes that allow for individuals to take time off. This can include structures moving immediate work to another team or qualified individual, allowing the individual to work from home or work half days, or having an agency or freelance team on call to fill gaps when necessary. While each of these will naturally be costlier than simply making someone work through illness or emotional turmoil, it will pay off in the long term.

Making Investments in Reducing Problems

Most presenteeism is caused by very preventable issues surrounding stress management, fatigue, lack of healthcare, substance abuse, and even lack of knowledge of how to take care of themselves. Making small investments into improving insurance availability, offering eye testing, offering stress management classes, and so on, can decrease presenteeism. Similarly, creating programs for more affordable healthcare for diabetes, programs to help people get treatment for substance abuse, and so on can greatly help you to reduce it.

Offering programs including time off, training, and better healthcare can and will reduce presenteeism. It will also work to boost employee morale, motivation, and company trust by showing that you are willing to take care of them. This will, in turn, boost productivity, reduce employee churn, and increase loyalty, which will benefit your organization.


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