What is Presenteeism in the Workplace (And How is it Affecting Your Business)?

You arrive to work. You sit down and start working, but you’re unable to concentrate. Perhaps you have a headache, or you’re physically and mentally exhausted from working all those overtime hours, or maybe you’re just plain old tired of your job and are now just “going through the motions.” Most of us have been there at some time or another. 

These are all examples of presenteeism, which is defined as the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc., often resulting in reduced productivity. 

And while it’s natural and even human to have days which you aren’t on your A-game, according to a 2013 study by the Conference Board of Canada, it’s actually costing Canadian businesses $16.6 billion annually. 

Whether you’re a business founder or HR professional or a manager, presenteeism is something that affects your business directly. So how do you reduce it?

The WHAT: Learn to recognize the symptoms of presenteeism

It’s hard to take action against something when you don’t know how to identify it. Unlike absenteeism, where employees are physically absent from the office, presenteeism is often harder to spot. 

Symptoms of presenteeism include:

  • Flagging performance from a normally high-performing employee;
  • Signs that the employee is sick, injured, or in discomfort;
  • Looking tired;
  • Arriving late/leaving early;
  • Conversely, working long hours/overtime over a span of time;
  • Waning enthusiasm about their work.

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The WHY: Causes of presenteeism

1. Fear of taking sick days due to financial factors

Sometimes employees don’t have paid sick days or use up their paid sick days before the end of the year. Or, they may be banking their sick days for a more “serious” illness, or for when their children or parents fall ill in order to tend to them. For these employees, taking extra time off from the office to recuperate from physical or mental illness comes with a financial impact. To avoid loss of pay, employees may arrive to work even when ill. 

2. Tight work deadlines/heavy workload

Oftentimes, employees may work while sick in order to make deadlines. They may feel that they can’t spare time off in fear of letting down their team or boss, or because they know that work will pile up to an unmanageable level in their absence. 

3. Perception of being absent from work

According to a recent study, more than 20 percent of workers said one of the main reasons they aren’t taking all of their vacation days is because they don’t want to appear replaceable. While most full-time, white-collar employees in Canada are offered paid time off, many workplaces do (intentionally or unintentionally) send mixed messages when it comes to actually using them. This may leave employees fearful of looking poorly in the eyes of their employer, or even losing their jobs. 

4. Burnout

Employees who work in fast-paced, heavy workload environments with long hours are more prone to burnout. Feeling mentally and/or physically exhausted, they may be unable to keep up with past performance after an extended period of time.

5. Feelings of unappreciation 

High performers  “go the extra mile” by performing to higher standards, working longer hours, and producing high quality work. However, employees who do not feel adequately recognized by their employer may suffer from decreased engagement over time due to lack of employee appreciation. 

6. Boredom

Are you engaging your employees? Do they find their job interesting, fulfilling, and challenging? Do they enjoy working at your company? Employees who find themselves plain old bored tend to be less productive at work, perhaps spending more time on their personal phones, or browsing the internet. 

7. Stress outside of work

Distracting stressors in an employee’s personal life are the hardest for employers to control, but it’s still important to understand the impact these stressors can have on job performance. Employees may experience difficulty concentrating or make more mistakes at work due to a myriad of worries related to family, money, relationships, or other personal challenges. 

The HOW: How to reduce presenteeism

This is the million dollar question: how do you keep employees happy, healthy, and engaged while at work?

1. Encourage employees to stay home while ill

This may mean implementing Paid Sick Leave if you don’t already have it. Establish and communicate clear guidelines encouraging employees to stay home while sick or otherwise unwell. Make sure that they know that not showing up to work when they’re feeling under the weather is A-OK. 

2. Have delegation and collaboration systems in place

Team member down? Ensure that work doesn’t grind to a halt when someone is away. This can be done by implementing a team collaboration tool such as Slack to keep colleagues informed and up to date about on-the-go projects, or having documented workflows for routine tasks that must be done regularly to that colleagues can temporarily fill in if needed. In addition to reducing presenteeism by helping employees feel that it’s possible to take a sick day when needed, it’s simply good business practise! 

3. Encourage wellness

All work and no play doesn’t only make Jack a dull boy, it also isn’t healthy for employees. 

Research shows that nearly any type of exercise, from walking or running, weightlifting or participating in organized sports, can contribute to improved cognitive performance.

Many companies choose to support wellness by offering employees a personal spending account for fitness expenses, such as the Honeybee Allowance Account. A fitness allowance makes it easier for employees to invest in healthy exercise, and it also demonstrates that you care about their wellbeing.

4. Offer flexible work hours

Consider offering employees flexibility in terms of setting their work hours. Most of us may be familiar with the traditional 9-5 workday. Setting flexible options for employees’ working hours (factoring in any hour-specific responsibilities they may have, of course) helps accommodate employees’ personal needs such as dropping children off at school, or enabling them to avoid peak rush hour times. 

Many businesses do this by allowing employees to set their hours for 8-4 or 10-6, or being flexible about having employees arrive early or work late to accomodate midday appointments. This is an easily implementable way to give employees personal control over their schedules and work environment while reducing turnover.

5. Rethink employee appreciation

Do your employees feel appreciated for the work they put in? According to Forbes, when producing high quality work, manager recognition is actually the number one motivator for employees. 

Did you know? When asked what leaders could do to improve engagement, 58% of respondents replied “Give recognition.”

Your employees are your greatest resource; let them know you appreciate them! Employee of the Month programs are a start, but it’s just not enough to incentivize employees. Make sure that you praise your employees for work well done, and be specific when doing so (“Thank you for helping Fergus with the project, I know he really appreciated it and I appreciate it too”). Though it is a simple and seemingly small thing, acknowledgement leaves employees motivated, energized, and willing to go further. 

6. Make health services more accessible 

Medical appointments take up a lot of employee time and effort. It’s just a fact of life…or is it? You can help ensure that employees are engaged at work and ready to tackle their job duties by helping offer accessible medical-related services as an employer. 

Minimize time and effort that employees spend booking and attending medical appointments with virtual health services such as Akira, or offer an internal Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) such as Shepell with remote counselling services, or even mobile paramedical services which can come to your office for a day, such as HealthCasa for podiatry needs. 

EAP’s (Employee Assistance Programs) have also been shown to reduce presenteeism. An EAP is an employer-paid resource for employees to help with a variety of problems or obstacles in their life. The EAP is most often a phone number that employees can call in order to be connected to professionals in a variety of subject matters, including:

  • Family, financial, career, and legal issues
  • Critical incidence and mental health
  • Health and fitness coaching, nutrition support, and naturopathic advice
  • Developing effective work habits
  • Specific challenges as people leaders

For a comprehensive overview of EAP’s, you can learn more at Morneau Shapell’s website.


Widespread presenteeism is often a symptom of a deficiency in the workplace itself. Using the tips in this article, companies can reduce (or even better, prevent) presenteeism rates, bolster employee productivity, and enforce your company culture. 

Interested in learning more about the topics mentioned in this article, such as the Allowance Account, Akira, Shepell, and HealthCasa? Honeybee Benefits can offer all those and more in our app.