If absenteeism is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to employees’ mental health and well-being, presenteeism is the bulky underwater mass, said William Lindsay, senior disability management advisor at Desjardins Insurance, during Benefits Canada’s 2023 Mental Health Summit.

While absenteeism — defined as an employee being repeatedly absent for more than half a day — is easily identifiable and quantifiable, presenteeism is less obvious because the employee is still at work, either struggling with an illness or otherwise mentally distracted. He noted presenteeism has nothing to do with laziness or motivational issues.

“Good intentions is often where presenteeism starts — people want to have a good relationship with their employer, they like the job they’re doing [and] they work well with their manager and their colleagues. So they say, ‘You know what, I’ll just work anyway.’”

Read: 71% of Canadian employees say mental health impacted their ability to work in the past year: survey

A July 2023 study by the Conference Board of Canada’s Workplace Health Research Centre found three factors influencing employers’ absenteeism and presenteeism are numbers: how many paid sick, mental-health and/or personal days a company provides; workplace attendance policies and disciplinary measures; and work arrangements.

The more paid sick days an employer offers, the more employees take, said Lindsay, noting there’s a direct relationship between the number of sick days available and employees’ mental health. “The sick days are acting like a safety valve that helps employees when that pressure cooker gets too high. . . . The question that’s underlying all of this is, ‘Can I afford to take a sick day?’ The No. 1 factor that goes into the employee’s thought process is the one that employers have the most control over.”

Employees who work onsite full time are absent more often than those who work in a hybrid or remote arrangement. They’re also more likely to engage in presenteeism, which is an important consideration for employers that are crafting mandatory return-to-office policies, he said, noting workplace attendance policies correlate with higher rates of presenteeism.

Read: Ross Video supporting employee mental health with virtual health-care platform

The survey also found a disconnect between employers and employees on absenteeism and presenteeism. While employers said the main reasons for employee absences were physical illnesses, mental-health conditions and coronavirus infections, employees cited coronavirus infections, medical appointments and family obligations. Notably, while 25 per cent of employees said mental-health issues were a contributing factor to their presenteeism, only 12 per cent took a day off work due to poor mental health.

If managers see an employee who’s struggling having difficulty concentrating, it’s important to ask if they’re OK and to let them know there’s help available, said Lindsay, adding managers can also reduce barriers to taking time off and encourage people not to work when they’re feeling unwell.

Employers can also leverage their benefits plan by making sure employees are aware of offerings such as virtual health-care solutions, employee assistance plans and paramedical coverage for mental health-care providers. He also suggested employers consider adding coverage for financial planning consultations, as financial stress can contribute to presenteeism.

Read more coverage of the 2023 Mental Health Summit.