The pressing problem of pandemic presenteeism

Work Wisdom

The pressing problem of pandemic presenteeism

With companies navigating what a welcome back means for employees over the next few months, the discussion of pandemic presenteeism is on the docket. Presenteeism is when employees feel they must work despite only being able to perform at a lower capacity due to ill health.

According to EHS Today, an American occupational safety and health magazine, presenteeism remains prevalent even with the continuing skirmish between flex, remote, and fully in-person work environments. It costs businesses ten times more than absenteeism.

Employees state they are compelled to continue working from home or the office while sick. Almost half (46%) of employees surveyed by The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) said they felt more pressure to be ‘present’ since working from home; 24% felt the need to prove they were working every day.

What’s the problem?

Presenteeism was a problem before the pandemic. In 2019, 90% of employees admitted clocking in when sick or generally unwell. Understandably, employees cannot perform their best while battling illness or injury. Presenteeism therefore comes at a cost — more than $150 billion annually.

However, the pandemic kicked presenteeism into an even higher gear in both the U.S. and abroad. With commutes consisting of just a few steps from bed to home office, it’s perhaps no surprise that:

  • 40% of employees went to work while sick during lockdown because they didn’t feel their illness was serious enough to take a day off.
  • 20% of employees did so because colleagues/senior staff would make them feel guilty for having time off.

This, too, comes at a cost — this time, to employees’ mental health.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that more than half of adults said their mental health had deteriorated since lockdown. For some, this became diagnosable depression. Mental Health America noted 8 in 10 people who took a depression screening scored with symptoms of moderate to severe depression consistently since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

Even before the pandemic, workplace stress cost employers an estimated $500 billion. Now, it’s ticked up higher as figures indicate a huge rise in mental health concerns since the outbreak.

Ongoing risks of flex working

If flex working means employees spend less time in the office, employers could find it more difficult to spot problems such as workplace stress early and act to prevent a larger issue. Untreated, this can present behavioral health challenges.  This can include stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. All of these can negatively impact well-being and productivity at work and home. According to a Unum consumer survey of 1,200 U.S. working adults, half of workers struggle with mental health issues. And 57% said they missed work last year because they felt mentally unwell.

It will, therefore, be even more important to have a strong mental health and wellbeing policy in place. At Unum, we’ve seen first-hand how the pandemic has affected employee mental health with a 20% year-over-year increase in mental health claims through disability benefits, leave administration and return-to-work services.

The pressure employees feel to always be online and contactable remains for many entering a flex working environment, whether they are on their lunch break or on annual leave. This is a real issue for maintaining staff morale and can lead to burnout.

The flex model is a natural evolution for the workplace, but the basics need to be in place to protect and bring out the best in both the employee and the employer. Simple things such as worrying if others judge you for your response time, or how long you stay online after working hours, can cause anxiety for many.

Some early intervention solutions businesses can offer employees are:

  • Encourage regular mini breaks between tasks
  • Provide resources to meet mental health needs
  • Offer training and continuing education
  • Encourage sharing of information and often communicate the organization’s vision
  • Provide fitness programs to encourage employee fitness
  • Offer employee work and resource groups

Whatever approach is taken to integrate wellbeing into the workplace and personal space, the key takeaway is that proactivity and early intervention are key, especially amid a flex working world.

Tags: | |