Head to head: Which is more disruptive: absenteeism or presenteeism?

Both absenteeism and presenteeism affect employers’ bottom lines and employee morale, but does one have more impact on the workplace?

Julie Holden, principal at Holden & Associates Ltd.

In many ways, employee absence is a major disruption to the workplace and it has become much more complex over the years.

On one hand, there’s the employee who takes a day off after the big game or fails to show up for work Monday morning, but we’re also seeing a significant increase in absences related to mental health and other chronic illnesses. Without effective policies and practices in place, this affects both an employer’s bottom line and employee morale.

Read: How to use data to address workplace absence

The metrics used to measure absenteeism, although not always consistent, are readily identified and can therefore be tracked. Data that’s typically available relates to casual absences, short- and long-term disability statistics and workers’ compensation. We also look at things like turnover, drug costs and hiring contract employees, which are all measurable and provide valuable insights.

For example, we know 70 per cent of the costs of all disabilities in Canada are related to mental health. Armed with this information, organizations are positioned to develop strategies that include prevention, improved access to psychological care and training for managers.

This is similarly true for employees living with a chronic illness. In years past, many people would have remained off work for longer periods of time. However, through a review of absence data, new workplace programs are being developed that allow for more education, improved accommodation strategies and collaboration. These all lead to less of an impact on the workplace, and improved quality of life for the employee who can remain in the workplace while they undergo treatment and manage their symptoms.

There’s no question that employee absence has a significant impact on the workplace; however, with available data comes innovation and improved health benefits and programs.

Kim Siddall, vice-president and local practice leader at Aon

Most of us have practiced presenteeism, whether it was a conscious decision or not. We’ve worked through a cold or a headache, or while supporting a sick child or a parent struggling with a health challenge. We’ve worked while dealing with a chronic health condition or a mental-health challenge, or while worrying about our finances.

On those days, we probably didn’t do our best work. At the very least, we weren’t particularly productive. But we were physically present and didn’t use a sick day. And it might be that no one noticed we weren’t at our best.

Read: Employees more aware of workplace presenteeism than employers

We’ve all seen statistics on the business impact of absenteeism — in 2012, the Conference Board of Canada estimated it costs Canadian companies $16.6 billion. And some experts clock the cost of presenteeism at three times the cost of absenteeism.

It’s easy to notice a person who’s physically missing from work. If someone needs to be absent for a period of time, we can make a plan for that. We can shift work around, bring in temporary help and keep things rolling. Absenteeism is measurable. Its impact can be quantified.

Most organizations also have attendance policies in place, which lay out the number of sick days employees are allowed in a given year, as well as steps for managers to take if that number is exceeded. There’s a process and a plan to address absenteeism.

But presenteeism is insidious. It’s based, to a degree, on self-reporting, or on the observations of others. It can be very difficult to measure or plan for. It can lead to resentment from team members who are picking up the slack, as well as decreased engagement.

And it’s more disruptive than absenteeism, both because of its invisible nature and because it can be so difficult for a leader or an organization to understand what’s happening and how to effectively address it.

Read: Disability policy review, analytics at heart of Scotiabank’s absence management award win