Not so very long ago, mental health problems were seen as something “good workers” either didn’t experience or were able to check at the door when they arrived in the workplace. Stigma continues to be a barrier but generally employers now understand that mental health issues are prevalent and we’re all susceptible, and that the workplace can and should play an important role in supporting the recovery process. (Anti-discrimination laws and labour regulations have helped, too.) When researchers first began to examine the financial impact of poor mental health within specific workplaces and industries and on the Canadian labour force at large, the focus was on collecting data related to absenteeism. How much time were workers missing because of mental health problems, in the form of sick time and disability claims. Surely this would paint a clear picture of the impact.
We now understand that absenteeism is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of poor employee mental health. Presenteeism – when employees are physically present in their job roles but are working below capacity because of mental distress – is estimated to cost employers 7.5 to 10 times more than absenteeism, according to the Harvard Business Review (read that article HERE). We can think of presenteeism as being on a spectrum, ranging from relatively mild stress that make someone a little distracted, to being cognitively unable to function at capacity due to significant symptoms of depression, anxiety and/or other mental health problems.
Over time, presenteeism can lead to all-out disengagement in the workplace if the issue isn’t rectified. When employees are disengaged, they’re content with accomplishing the bare minimum (and sometimes not even that). Through disengagement an organization’s bottom line is impacted in the form of lost productivity, and the downward spiral usually ends up feeding on itself: employees don’t feel satisfied with the work they’re doing and morale is poor, leading to high turnover rates. Likelihood of human error and physical injuries on the job also increase significantly when presenteeism is an issue. Every task takes the team far longer than it should, with contention between everyone involved every step of the way. New ideas are almost always met with criticism and close-mindedness and any type of change, from large organizational shifts to where the coffeemaker sits in the break room, are painful and all parties involved feel zapped of energy. Decision-making is a challenge because many are neutral due to no investment in the outcome, and others are actively disagreeable and critical of the contributions of their peers. When new employees come on board one of two things happens: they assimilate to the negative culture or they leave the position. Those who try to make changes for the better are fighting an uphill battle. They eventually burn out. And so the cycle continues: disengagement breeds disengagement.
The full impact of presenteeism can be difficult to fully understand and quantify because the truth is, if lacklustre performance has been the norm long-term you may have no idea of just how much they’re truly capable of. Your organization might be failing to thrive and it’s quite possible nobody realizes it.
Certain workplace cultures inadvertently foster and normalize presenteeism. The mentality that the organization “pays me to show up” or employees seeing their work as “a good way to get my mind off things” are indications that not everyone is reaching their full potential in their roles. This mindset can stems from seemingly small things, such as a workplace attaching high value to being physically present (for example, honouring an employee for perfect attendance during a certain time period) as opposed to more productivity-focused milestones (like reaching a specific production target) or celebrating more subjective contributions (celebrating an employee who went the extra mile on a project).
Presenteeism isn’t usually as apparent as absenteeism which can make it more difficult to address. If an employee is missing a lot of time, the issue can be addressed using objective information. If a team member comes across as being less engaged than they normally are – well, that’s a little less concrete and therefore perhaps more challenging to discuss.
So what can workplaces do to address presenteeism? The first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem. I would argue that there’s room for better engagement in every workplace. Train leaders and staff in programs like Mental Health First Aid so they feel equipped to recognize early signs of distress in their fellow workers, initiate those tough conversations and connect a struggling employee to appropriate help (like the Employee Assistance Program). Foster a culture where it’s well understood that as human beings, we all have “off days”. Taking a day off when it’s needed could mitigate the chance of disability leave down the road. For employees to feel truly engaged and present in their job roles they must be able to take satisfaction out of the work they’re doing and understand how their unique contributions serve the organization’s mission. Ensuring that happens is a larger conversation (stay tuned!) but believe me when I say it’s achievable no matter what the role(s), industry or organization looks like. Put some thought into the various ways presenteeism might appear in your workplace specifically and brainstorm ways they might be addressed. An unbiased perspective, especially on that’s seasoned by experience with a variety of workplaces can be an invaluable resource in this process (like a Psychological Health and Safety Consultant, for example – yes, that’s a shameless plug!).
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.