The Billion-Dollar Presenteeism Problem

How presenteeism impacts the workplace

Sleepy businessman rubbing eyes
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Do you ever go into the office when you’re not 100 percent? Or perhaps you stay at your desk longer than necessary to make a good impression on your boss -- and claim a few hours overtime in the process! Guess what? You may be doing your company a disservice by going to work instead of staying at home!

You read that correctly. The costs of presenteeism have reached such alarming levels companies can no longer ignore them.

Presenteeism is when people go to work though they should be at home. In fact, studies suggest the cost of presenteeism is higher than the cost of absenteeism. Why do workers think they need to be at their desks at all times? And how do companies suffer as a result?

Why Don’t Workers Stay at Home?

This occurs the most during economic downturns when businesses downsize and reduce costs wherever they can. In this climate, employees don’t take time off for several reasons:

No paid sick days - Workers do whatever they can to earn the most, so if they can avoid unpaid time off, they will. If a company doesn't offer paid sick leave, employees usually go to work even though they're unwell. They may not want to use their vacation time when they don’t have sick leave.

Combined paid time off - People work when they’re ill to accumulate the most paid time off. Then they use time allocated for sick leave as holiday time.

Company culture and policies - Bosses discourage workers from skipping work. Company policies may penalize absences, or fear of losing one’s job forces employees to be at work regardless of circumstances. They may be contractually entitled to sick leave and vacation time, but staff forfeit those benefits to protect their jobs.

Heavy workloads - Unfinished work or missed deadlines would make the company's projects suffer. This happens after job cuts when extra tasks are assigned to smaller teams. A lack of cross-training programs keeps people at work because no one else can replace them while they're away.

No work-at-home alternatives - Companies don’t have telecommuting options for employees who shouldn’t be in the office, in the case of contagious illness, for example. However, deadlines need to be met.

Job protection - People go into the office or stay late even if workloads are light to show diligence and industriousness. They use this as a form of job protection if layoffs become a possibility.

Denial - Workers convince themselves that although they aren’t completely healthy, they can still do their jobs.

The Costs of Presenteeism

The financial costs are staggering. Studies put the cost to U.S. employers at between $150 and $250 billion each year. Companies are under pressure as these costs mount in a volatile economy where markets are more and more competitive.

In the case of illness, presenteeism means germs spread to others. Employees think they are well enough to perform on the job, but colleagues can catch the bug.

If they have weaker immune systems, others could suffer more serious or prolonged effects.

Job performance fluctuates and has a direct impact on company costs. When employees aren’t operating at optimal levels, it takes longer to complete tasks, and mistakes happen. The effects are seen in lower quality products, poor customer service, and a greater chance of accidents on the job.

Presenteeism and Absenteeism

When people don’t stay at home, symptoms worsen, their illnesses get more serious, and they have to seek long-term health care. Down the line, absenteeism becomes an issue for the company. If workers stay at home initially, they’re less likely to take prolonged time off because of bigger problems.

People who don't take vacations or work long hours suffer from stress and depression. These conditions can lead to long-term health problems, so workers are away from work for longer periods.

Researchers peg the cost of depression to U.S. companies at $35 million a year because of reduced performance.

Presenteeism can also contribute to a negative workplace culture. When staff are forced to be in the office regardless of their circumstances, low morale and employee resentment increase. A tense work environment means a lot more people are calling in sick when they’re okay.

Solving the Presenteeism Problem

Employers can take several measures to deal with the issue:

  • Go over workplace policies -- both written and unwritten -- to make sure employees don’t feel obliged to work when they are ill, or when they should be on vacation

  • Provide paid sick days

  • Offer telecommuting options

  • Cross-train workers to handle tasks when someone is absent

  • Invest in treatments for common illnesses to improve job performance

  • Include employee health and well-being among company priorities

  • Develop a company culture where employees are valued and can communicate openly with their bosses


Employers must consider the direct and indirect costs of presenteeism. Company policies should foster a climate of respect for the job and the company.  And managers must avoid tactics to keep workers at their desks for longer without considering their health and personal circumstances. Presenteeism can easily lead to absenteeism, and both are billion-dollar headaches companies cannot afford.

This article has since been updated by Laurence Bradford.