Showing Up for the Sake of It

Presenteeism - Showing Up for the Sake of It

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Victoria Heath

Presenteeism is unproductive!

When and where are you reading this? Is it late at the office, while you wait for the boss to leave? Or early morning at home, before you've got dressed?

Should you be trying to think and make decisions when you're so tired – or even sick?

One of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is having more flexibility over where and when we work. But rather than seize this opportunity to enjoy a better work-life balance, many of us are falling back into, or building on, bad habits. Like presenteeism, or its modern upgrade, digital presenteeism.

What Is Presenteeism?

A definition of presenteeism is dragging yourself into the office when you're ill, to show you're not a "slacker," or logging in to do extra work from home, to be seen doing it. You'll likely achieve little in the time, but you'll still feel the need to appear productive.

Presenteeism can look like boastful or arrogant behavior, and it can descend into toxic competition and rivalry. In reality, it's motivated by fear that other people, especially your boss, will think you're not doing enough.


Avoid confusing presenteeism with Impostor Syndrome, which is the unjustified fear of being "found out" as incompetent or unworthy, and the dismissing of personal successes as being down to luck or other people.

The word "presenteeism" is a play on "absenteeism," which describes the opposite pattern of behavior: unexpectedly not showing up, especially when you actually could.

Both behaviors are a problem for individuals and businesses alike, but presenteeism can create a vicious cycle, with people becoming more unwell and even less productive as they try to "push through." For example, in the U.K., it's estimated that presenteesim costs on average 35 productive workdays per worker per year. [1]

Before the rise in virtual working, presenteeism often involved arriving first in the office and leaving last. Now, studies show that we're working even longer hours, but doing it remotely. Digital presenteeism is setting in. We're answering emails and sending direct messages at all hours. In short, we can't switch off.

Why Presenteeism Happens

For many, presenteeism is a legacy of office culture. People don't want to be the last to arrive or first to leave. We worry that our bosses will frown, or that our colleagues will gossip – affecting our chances of promotion.

The pandemic made many of us feel the need to go the extra mile to hold down our jobs when others were losing theirs. There is also a widespread assumption that leaders and managers will rate more highly the team members who they get to meet, that is, those who've made the effort to come in to the office.

Trouble is, research shows our fears might be real. A 2019 study found that remote workers have slower salary growth than their office-based co-workers. Psychologists point to cognitive biases at play:

  • "Mere-exposure effect" – the more you see someone, the more you relate to and like them.
  • "Halo effect" – you fall into the logical fallacy trap of seeing someone as nice (because of their politeness, for example) rather than productive. [2]

These phenomena can conspire and lead to people getting promoted over less-visible but more-skilled employees. Just because they turn up!

Presenteeism and Health

Clearly, presenteeism can lead to physical and mental exhaustion. Research suggests it can also be caused by lack of sleep and poor mental health.

Studies also show that our health declined during the pandemic. We slept less, were more depressed, and fretted extra over our physical and financial health. [3] So, a rise in presenteeism is a logical outcome of the pandemic, not simply for reasons of job security or visibility.

What's more, increased remote working has increased our sense of social isolation. We see extra hours clocked as a way to connect with people, but, in reality, constant video calls and messaging sap our energy, along with our Wi-Fi.

How to Stop Presenteeism

If these signs look familiar, and you want to reverse the trend toward presenteeism in your workplace, try these tips.

1. Lead From the Front

People will continue to believe that presenteeism is unavoidable unless their leaders model a healthy work-life balance themselves. So, be sure to encourage remote employees to take breaks from their desks by sharing posts of you doing the same. Then clock off on time – whatever that is – and let people know that you're going home.

You can also share with your team or wider organization that you take sick days! People will feel less concerned to "be seen" if their boss isn't always around to watch them, especially if those leaders demonstrate honesty and humility.

2. Focus on Outcomes

Hours clocked are an unfair and inaccurate measure of productivity. So, share with your team members what outputs you do value, thereby making your expectation clear and visible to everyone.

Take consulting company Artemis, for example. After scoping projects, it breaks tasks down into blocks of time needed to complete them, then allocates each to employees. Staff work when and where they want to – and managers see what's getting done. [4] This is often known as a results-only work environment (ROWE).

3. Be Flexible

The pandemic pushed working from home (WFH) or hybrid working onto us whether we were ready for it or not. But it's not too late for people to learn valuable skills such as time management and tips for managing boundaries.

Help your people to identify what routine works best for them. Say, short bursts of work with regular breaks, or fitting in exercise to help maintain energy levels.

Professional bodies that deal with HR and personal development, such as the CIPD in the U.K., also recommend improving people's "mental health literacy." That way, they can better manage their own mental health and support colleagues. [5]

4. Talk Openly About Health

Health, and mental health in particular, is still something of a taboo in many workplaces. That's why a Deloitte report recommends we have open conversations about mental health. [6]

Make well-being talks a routine. Start with your onboarding and continue with regular check-ins between managers and employees. And, until we all get more comfortable talking about our mental health, workplace apps such as Trickle let people ask for help anonymously, and get the support they need.

You can find more information on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) site in the U.S. and Mind in the U.K.

As research director at Gartner, Alexia Cambon says, "In essence, we need to stop designing work around location, and start designing work around human behavior." [7] Do that, and we can show up and be productive at work.

Key Points

Presenteeism is when you feel the need to work or do extra just to be seen doing it, even if you are sick or otherwise not at your best.

Your productivity will likely be low, and your physical and mental health will likely suffer.

Managers can minimize presenteeism by following a few straightforward steps:

  1. Lead from the front.
  2. Focus on outcomes.
  3. Be flexible.
  4. Talk openly about health.

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