Presenteeism Blamed on Workplace Shortfalls

The concept of “presenteeism” in the workplace was identified some time ago. Despite decades of advancements in the psychological, technological and physical aspects of work, organizations are no closer to curing it.

Simply defined, presenteeism is the undermining of workplace productivity due to stress, pain, illness and disengagement. Workers may be physically present in the workplace, but for many reasons, they are not working at anywhere near their full potential.

Although there are many studies on the cost of absenteeism to organizations, there are fewer studies on presenteeism – even if these studies highlight the critical effects on productivity.

In the U.S., for example, a yearlong survey of 29,000 workers calculated the cost of presenteeism to U.S. businesses to be more than USD 150 billion per year. Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association also found that the cost of presenteeism to be three times that of absenteeism.

Modern Workplace Design to Blame

In Australia, Dr. Libby Sander presented a different set of numbers, but the conclusion was the same.

Sander, an assistant professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Bond University Business School, believed that presenteeism costs the Australian economy AUD 34 billion per year. Absenteeism, in comparison, costs AUD 7 billion.

Speaking at the Total Facilities conference in Sydney recently, Sander said many of the trends in the modern workplace were contributing to presenteeism, despite being designed in the hope of making things better.

She pointed to trends such as open planned offices and hot desking, which instead of being welcomed by employees for their flexibility were increasing the feeling of loneliness and isolation which was one of the causes for presenteeism.

“The idea is that you should meet this person you are sitting next to on a particular day and introduce yourself, share ideas and have cross-disciplinary collaboration," she said.

“But the research is showing that people have become indifferent. They think ‘I’m not going to be sitting next to you tomorrow so I can’t be bothered saying hello and I’ll probably never see you again’ so it delivers the opposite to what was hoped for.”

“That is not to say that this kind of working does not work for some people, but one of the biggest problems we have is that it is generally a one size fits all approach,” she added.

There was little point, Sander said, of having everyone working in the same room if no one could concentrate.

Waterfall for Collaboration

Sander said that with the nature and design of work is changing rapidly, and many people are becoming lonely, stressed and unhappy in their work environments. Architects and designers were "doing their best to support people" to be healthier and happier at work, but there was still a "new world disorder" where people were looking for security and fulfillment.”

“Increasingly, the workplace is not providing that for a lot of people,” said Sander, who believed that only 13 percent of Australian workers are fully engaged with their jobs.

The workplace, said Sander, was a “cognitive scaffold” which combined a host of factors, from acoustics and personal space to leadership issues around “sociopathic leadership and abusive supervision” -- all of which had an impact on happiness and ultimately productivity.

Some employers recognize the environmental impact on work. U.S. company Delos, for example, provides “wellness intelligence platforms” for residential and commercial situations and practices much of what it preaches at its New York headquarters.

There, 78 sensors monitor various environmental conditions and a virtual waterfall positioned at the central staircase adds a new water drop every time somebody takes the stairs.

“So, this subtly suggests to people that they should move around a bit more, go and talk to some more people,” said Sander.

Culture Fit Is the Wrong Requirement

A key to the solution was a recognition of diversity, Sander said, but many organizations continue to pursue a one-size-fits-all approach to the work environment which also extends to management policies.

“We have hired so strongly to fit culture over the last few decades that we have a lack of diversity in thinking,” she said.

“So, when you add to that the contingent workforce, on short term contracts, you have people who are not prepared to speak out and challenge authority and say ‘hey I think that is a stupid idea, why are we doing that?’”

“This is a worrying trend, and you might now have a whole lot of people who are thinking the same way because they have been hired for culture.”