Presenteeism and burnout - Can returning to the office help?

Anne-Lise Brown
Anne-Lise Brown ↓ citește în 8 minute
Sep 22, 2023
Citit de 79 de ori

Do you ever catch yourself going through the motions of work without actually being present? A sense of meaningless drift through the heavy predictability of days; a compulsive urge to do what needs to be done, though without any moral involvement, but simply because the “to-do list” demands to be completed… This is what presenteeism can feel like.

Presenteeism was first introduced as a term to describe the behavior of continuing to work while sick or emotionally troubled as a response to a personal or cultural perception that regards extreme dedication and loyalty to work as an admirable performative measure. Recently, the use of this term has also been extended to the scenario of employees being physically present at work, while mentally detached. These are the employees who show up to work every single day, they attend all mandatory meetings, they religiously connect for their remote hours, all while being depleted of any form of motivation. The result is obvious: productivity decreases.

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WHAT CAN PRESENTEEISM LOOK LIKE FOR A COMPANY?

A survey conducted by Deloitte (2022) found that presenteeism is the largest contributor to employers’ costs of mental health, estimated at around £24-28 billion in 2021, roughly four times the cost of mental health-related absenteeism. In other words, it costs the employer more if employees show up at work without having a good mental and emotional capacity, than being absent.

Similarly, Britain’s Healthiest Workplace Survey 2014-2019, conducted by RAND Europe found that employees lose on average 14.6% of their working hours due to absence (1.1%) and presenteeism (13.5%), which represents an average loss of 38 productive days per employee. The results point to an upward trend since 2014 when employees were losing an average of 23 productive days per year. If we take a look at the graph below, we notice how the equivalent of days marked by presenteeism is a much smaller number of absent days. Showing up to work, but being limited in some aspects of job performance is obviously not benefiting either party.

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When an employee is physically present but psychologically absent, a thread of negative consequences follows, impacting both the company and the individual, such as:

  • Decreased productivity - Effectiveness will suffer from low energy and reduced focus. This can look like insufficient output, missed deadlines, and lower work quality.

  • Low morale - A disengaged person can also turn into a resentful one, a feeling that can easily spread in the team and affect other colleagues’ performance as well.

  • Health issues - Not taking time off to address the physical and/or mental symptoms one experiences will lead to a prolonged state of ill-being. This behavior can eventually translate into even more required time off, further loss of productivity, or burnout - which will mean a long-term sick leave.

  • Poor employee retention - The issue might be projected on the employer from an employee’s perspective who engages in presenteeism. They might feel that the company doesn’t understand or know how to address mental health, and thus to chose to leave as a way to solve their problem. This is why a proactive approach to supporting the mental health of employees is required.

  • Financial losses - This is one of the most obvious consequences because numbers can speak louder than words: a decrease in productivity, increased medical costs, and higher employee turnover rates will all have an impact on team dynamics and the businesses’ profits.

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PRESENTEEISM IN THE REMOTE ERA

Working from home introduced a new dimension to how we view our jobs and many remote employees are still struggling to find a way to integrate working in the informal context of their homes, without letting the two overlap. While at home, it is harder to set boundaries between work and personal life. When the phone calls, you might as well pick it up. When the email enters, your phone is right in front of you so why not answer quickly rather than delay it for the next day? But just like that, without a clear distinction of where work stops and personal life begins, days can feel like they are immersed in constant work, a thread of events that are playing on repeat. Having a hard time switching off at the end of a working day will eventually have a say in one’s personal life as well, affecting personal relationships and dynamics.

Many workers are afraid to appear like they’re taking advantage of an already flexible workplace. When it comes to illness, calling out sick can be perceived as a failure to meet the employer’s standards. In an in-office scenario, the employee would have to be considerate of their colleagues’ health and wouldn’t show up to work sick. But since a remote worker is already confined in their home, the coughing and sneezing won’t have that great of an impact on work, right?

Another aspect that could make workers push their limits and ignore the signs of a loud need for rest is the context of job insecurity. In the context of mass layoffs and market restructuring, some employees might feel uncomfortable taking time off in an attempt to secure their position and prove loyalty and dedication to their company.

We would like to touch on one last thing specific to remote roles. The flexibility of working at one’s own pace can also transform into the “as long as I get it done” type mentality, when work is being stretched over the duration of the whole day and/or week, a continuous procrastination impregnated with the pressure of finalizing the given tasks, only to realize not much pleasure or satisfaction is found neither during work, nor the small, but frequent spare moments. From an employer’s perspective, the work was done. But the information the employer can’t access is on how it was done and how it left the employee feeling. Engaging in this kind of behavior repeatedly leaves no room for authentic connections with family and friends, time for hobbies, mindful movement, and proper rest and relaxation, and inevitably leads to burnout.

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Is all this to say remote working is not… working? Beyond our intent. But in order for a fully remote initiative to bring results, it does need a more encompassing, holistic approach. The employers are responsible for providing resources, training, and support in successfully navigating remote work, and for readjusting some of their strategies and workflow methods. The employees, on the other hand, need to invest in educating themselves on setting boundaries, engaging in healthy habits, seeking community, and listening to their minds and bodies.

However, an alternative to remote work has been discussed lately in tech companies: the 2-day in-office proposition. This could be the sweet spot for hybrid workers, giving employees the flexibility they need, without isolating them. It confers a sense of belongingness and autonomy at the same time.

THE 2-DAY IN-OFFICE PROPOSITION

Research found that spending about 50% of working time with other colleagues significantly improves mentorship, collaboration, and trust in the team, as well as retention and overall team performance. Consequently, the rest of the time spent working remotely provides employees with more time for focused work and contributes to the feeling of psychological safety.

Katy George, McKinsey’s chief people officer, highlights the importance of structuring the in-office days in such a way that improves the quality of both work and work relationships: “You shouldn’t require people to come into the office if everyone is going to be heads-down in their cubicles all day [...] You need to be intentional and anchor those office days around activities that are most effective in-person, whether it’s career workshops, feedback sessions or team brainstorms.”

However, not that remote work has gained such popularity, employers are reluctant to make working from the office mandatory, even if it’s just 2 days a week. On one hand, companies requiring workers to return to the office consider this to be a healthy approach to fostering team cohesion, and productivity. On the other hand, imposing this on employees can feel limiting and unaccommodating of their needs.

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Does this proposition represent an advantage or disadvantage for organizations?

It depends on how it’s done.

If returning to the office is done in the “heads-down in their cubicles all day” described before, then companies might just reinforce going through the motion of work without any enthusiastic involvement, without any sense of purpose or desire to connect to others. Office days are just going to feel like a hindrance for employees, an unnecessary interruption from their way of living and working (whether that way is productive or not).

But if returning to the office is done right, presenteeism can be decreased and the mental health of employees supported. Structuring the work week in such as way that office days focus on team tasks, workshops, and brainstorming is one step. The physical environment is also a very important factor. Erika Kosa, founder, HR director, and senior organizational psychologist at Human Direct, attended the HR Summit in Cluj-Napoca this year and shared with us some implications of having a workplace created to foster wellness. According to the presentations held during this event, research has shown that working in green-certified offices increases cognitive capacity by 26% and decreases sick leave by 30%. The respondents to the respective Harvard study also reported a 6% increase in sleep quality. Another aspect that was touched on was the importance of ergonomics. At work, people need access to spaces where they can focus and thrive, and this mission can be supported through an environment that promotes wellness and well-being. Equipment such as Steelcase products promotes health and comfort and ensures that employees are physically supported to perform at their best.

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Presenteeism is not just a fad or a buzzword. It’s not just another subject that people like to talk about at conferences. It is a result of isolation, organizational cultures that promote hard work at the expense of one’s health, cognitive dissonance about what makes one valuable and needed, and intense disconnection between the self and others. When presenteeism describes the state of being in a team, you can barely call it a team - know you’re dealing with a handful of soon-to-be-burnt-out individuals that show up to work (even if virtually) without a clear purpose or perspective. This is why, it is key to address the well-being of employees before such an issue even instills and take the necessary measures to promote connection, health, psychoeducation, and a sense of meaning.

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