Why Presenteeism Is Worse Than Absenteeism

Why Presenteeism Is Worse Than Absenteeism

Over the years I’ve looked after teams of all shapes and sizes: local teams; interstate teams; small teams; and some very large teams too. One thing I quickly discovered was as the team size grows, it gets harder and harder to have ‘all hands on deck’. Winter sets in and suddenly people start dropping like flies.

Worker picture from Shutterstock

I guess it’s to be expected. But organise a mid-year staff drinks and dinner and you’ll have 100 per cent attendance . . . go figure!

On a more serious note, whether it’s as a result of the onset of flu season, or just as a result of the winter blues, a spike in office absenteeism is hard to avoid at this time of the year.

However even if you are lucky enough have absenteeism relatively under control, another (perhaps more recent) workplace phenomenon which business owners and employers need to be more conscious of is presenteeism.

This refers to when your staff come to work but for whatever reason they don’t want to be there at all and have become totally disengaged. It has nothing to do with anyone feeling under the weather or fighting off a head cold; for whatever reason your staff member has just decided they don’t want to be there any more.

The problem is they haven’t found somewhere else to go yet, so you are paying them to be there, they’re disenfranchised, and most likely becoming toxic to your environment.

They’re probably speaking negatively about your organisation to clients, sending inappropriate messages about the business to friends on Facebook (on your time) or whispering to other colleagues in the breakout area poisoning them with negative thoughts.

This is dangerous and while you’d be better off without them, that’s not necessarily an easy solution.

Here are a few tell-tale signs of presenteeism:

  • Someone who used to always be in early and happy to stay late, now arrives spot on time and is out the door at 5:30pm
  • They look miserable and have stopped contributing in team meetings
  • They used to work through lunch eating a sandwich at their desks but now are out taking a full hour every day
  • When you asked them how they are, their response is always “fine”
  • They continually raise negative issues in team meetings just to cause a stir

How can your curb presenteeism?

If you suspect that you’re paying a staff member who has clearly lost interest, you need to address it immediately.

Putting aside the drop in temperature outside, mid-year is also the perfect time to conduct performance reviews where you can spend quality time with your individual staff members to ensure they’re still focused, that they still believe in the direction of the business, and above all that they’re still ‘on board the northbound train’.

Whilst you can provide your team with flu shots or fresh fruit to help minimise the amount of absenteeism in the business, there’s no magic vaccine to prevent the spread of the negativity germ due to the potential presenteeism epidemic.

Don’t be afraid to address it with someone you think may be displaying early symptoms. If caught early, it can save you a lot of pain in the long run.

Paul Slezak is the co-founder of RecruitLoop,a startup that’s changing the way employers source candidates. Paul has 20 years’ experience across various recruitment roles.


  • That symptom accurately describes 50% of the employees I work with.
    It’s an indicator that employees are sick of management lies and inaction. Take a hard look at yourself if you’re a manager and this is your workforce. I’ve spent 4 years fighting this shit – damn straight I’m going to work to contract now that nothing has changed.

  • Yeah, maybe your expectation that your employees continually work through their lunch break and stay late every day has something to do with this?

  • This sound like it’s the workplace’s fault, not the employees fault, for disengagement.

    I expect flexible work hours, supervisors who respect my task management choices, remote access and recognition (financial or not) of any work I do beyond my contract. In short, a 21st century workplace.

    If your solution to unhappy employees is performance reviews and labeling poor morale as a ‘disease’ to be cured with a show-and-awe ‘flu shot’, don’t blame employees looking for a more progressive work environment.

  • Points 1-4 above sound more like an attempt to manage burn-out than signs of presenteeism.

  • What an utter wank word (or weasel word). It’s recruiters and managers that come up with terms like this that are often to blame for the symptoms the words describe.

  • “How can your [sic] curb presenteeism?”

    Fire yourself and get the company to hire a decent supervisor to replace you, perhaps.

    @kato: I agree, another corporate neologism the world can do without.

  • Oddly enough the only time I throw a sickie is to get out of staff drinks and dinners. I see you people all day. Don’t try and force some kind of half-assed social situation on me.

    • I totally agree, I just do not get this, it is great that they do this stuff, but don’t expect your employees to go to these forced social situations. Especially when I have nothing in common with anyone I work with, and would rather be at home with family or my friends.

  • I agree with everyone above.
    I am exactly like your article. I started out doing to much, and end up doing the minimum as the last 3 jobs I have been in promised training and certification but I never got it. Why should I work myself into the ground when they don’t stick to there word? I still do my 8 hours and still work harder then the rest of the team, whats wrong with that?
    My current job has had the team leader leave and I now fill there roll as well but I don’t get a title change or more money so now they just get the 8 hours from me. Hopefully they will realise that they need to hire someone above or below me so that we can cope.

  • Ridiculous middle-management-directed article that should be on another website altogether. As others have mentioned – why the heck should we be working extra hours and through lunch? I’d like a reply please Paul Slezak, bossman.

  • Stupid article is stupid. Seems to point the finger firmly at the employee when in my own experience with barely a thought that maybe the employee is unhappy because of their working conditions, offering no other advice than “have a review”.

    I’ve definitely been “guilty” of all of the “telltale signs of presenteeism” on that list at one stage or another in a lot of jobs over my 10 years in IT, but I can tell you the reasons straight up. Only thing is, in every one of these cases, management was uninterested in taking on board any of my criticisms. For me, my most unpleasant working environments (oh I’m sorry, I mean, outbreaks of presenteeism have been because of:

    – underpayment
    – expectation that staff work late or work through lunches without incentives
    – lack of incentives or goals to try any harder
    – promises of improvements of the work environment, or rewards/incentives/pay-raises which go unfulfilled, are delayed or watered down
    – toxic management environment, eg. no clear leader, multiple parties believing they are in charge
    – an expectation that staff “hang in there” or do it tough because the company is. For me that’s no greater alarm bell and cause to hit seek.com immediately. Just because your company is doing tough doesn’t mean the thousands of other potential employers for me out there are
    – “When you asked them how they are, their response is always “fine”” – normally this comes after you’ve already raised the issues a few times and they’ve been ignored
    – “negative issues just to cause a stir”? Yeah right, and not because they’re issues that need to be improved, way to brush off problems faced by your staff.

    IMO if you’ve been working there for a year or more and are “guilty” of presenteeism, get out of there quick because it’s not going to get any better anytime soon. Especially if you’re managed by this dolt.

  • “They used to work through lunch eating a sandwich at their desks but now are out taking a full hour every day”

    That really grinds my gears, I have a co worker that is really annoying and one thing is that he always eats at his desk. I have to take the full hour, which I do not get paid for, to get away from the guy. If I didn’t take this time, most of my day would be spent trying not to claw his face off.

    I find that anyone that expects me to work through a lunch break without any good reasons can get stuffed. If it’s busy I don’t mind taking a quick break to wolf down some food, but if it isn’t them I am going to. That hour break is my time that I am not being paid to work, so I will take it as I please. An employer can not deny you that break, but you can forfeit it if you want to.

    • I’ve previously worked in a role (in-between full time positions) that was casual. We were told “We cannot force you to only take a 15-minute lunch break, but if you choose to take an hour, we will won’t give you any long shifts. We will only give you 3 hour shifts”. The extra 45 minutes we worked wasn’t paid. Payslips indicated a full hour unpaid break. Shifts were generally 8.5 hours for people that accepted the 15 minute break condition.

    • There have been a bunch of articles on here recently that talk about the benefits of getting away from your desk, and taking a lunch break. I’ve started doing it, and it’s been great, so I sort of resent the idea that it’s a symptom of disengagement… for me, it’s a symptom of attempting to continually improve!

  • I’ve seen this at my workplace and most of the time it can be directly attributed to worker’s suggestions for improvement getting constantly knocked back by middle management. Let people feel valuable and they will start trying to add value.

  • Hey I can’t wait to get placed in a Chinese sweatshop by the awesomely pro-employee folks like Paul Slezak over at RecruitLoop. First lesson in business – talk to your demographic. This may be a perfectly acceptable article, if a little elitist, on Forbes or BRW. FYI, Lifehacker is generally home to folks who hack things, not the institutions that necessitate hacking.

  • management would rather make short term gains as they are easier to predict and look good in reviews

  • OK Ive missed something here, this is not what presenteeism is at all. Its people staying at work for longer periods because they feel they are obliged to or need to be seen to be working harder than they are and not really doing all that much. You know the guy who regularly stay to 1900 and surfs the web or is doing pers admin because hes afraid to be seen to leaving at the regular time.

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