Presenteeism and Corporate Culture

2009 June 30

Creative Commons License photo credit: Refracted Moments™

Since I’m sick today but sitting at my home office desk struggling to think clearly enough to write, I’ve got presenteeism on my mind. Presenteeism — the notion of showing up for work when you probably should be absent — has been an increasingly hot topic in workplace research. A Harvard Business Review article called Presenteeism: At Work — But Out of It by Paul Hemp addressses the workplace productivity costs associated with employees who show up but don’t perform. From the article’s description:

By some estimates, the phenomenon costs U.S. companies over $150 billion a year–much more than absenteeism does.

And yet, presenteeism has always been a loaded concept to me. Certainly it’s best that people stay home when they have illnesses that may be contagious. Everyone hates the office cold or flu. But it’s also been my experience that there’s a certain cowboy attitude amongst top managers (male or female) when they get sick. It’s as if they must prove that they don’t need time off to recover from illness like normal humans do. And that sends a very clear message to the middle managers who are striving for promotion into top management ranks, which of course sends a message to their direct reports and so on. It’s not difficult to see where corporate culture reinforces this idea that it’s better to show up than rest up.

So what’s the solution, then? I can’t say I know, but it should probably start at the top, with leaders setting the example of taking the time they need when they’re sick to be away from the office (hey, they’re doing wonderful things with the internet these days; you don’t have to be onsite all the time). Perhaps the rest will follow over time.

Easier said than done, I’m sure — as I sit here in my pajamas and bathrobe pondering climbing back into bed. And you know what? For the good of corporate culture, I think I’ll do it.

What are your thoughts on presenteeism? How have you seen it addressed? Tell us in the comments.

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