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Combating Presenteeism in the Workplace

Most employers have a good idea of the negative impact that employee burnout has on their culture, bottom line, engagement, and turnover rates. Needless to say, it’s big. Many things can lead to employee burnout, but most often left out of the conversation is the problem of presenteeism 

Presenteeism is the act of coming into work when you are not entirely up for it, either because of illness or mental health, and working at a reduced capacity. This leads to increased burnout because it stresses the body and mind when it should be resting, and is instead straining energy resources and stamina. 

Successfully approaching the problem requires a multi-pronged approach.  

Set the tone 

While employees may read in your handbook that their wellness matters, it may not be evident within your culture. If you have managers and leaders within your company that pedestalizes employees who work overtime or come in when they are sick, you might as well be telling others that is the expectation of all employees.   

Make sure you not only encourage people to stay home when they are sick, but also make a concerted effort to identify when people are at work when they shouldn’t be. And when that inevitably happens: Send. Them. Home. 

Sick days aren’t enough 

While sick days are essential, they don’t encompass all the other valid reasons for not coming in to work. Taking a day off for mental health reasons is just as valid as doing so because of physical illness. In today’s culture, younger generations are prioritizing mental health and wellness and want to see their company do the same.  

Make an effort to destigmatize the topic of mental health in your workplace and encourage people to go home when they need the day off. Doing so will help you build strong relationships with your employees based on trust, loyalty, and care. When employees feel taken care of and are free to take care of their personal needs, they will become deeply invested and engaged with your company. The loss of one day of work may be all the difference someone needs to help them return with more energy, drive, and dedication.  

Learn how to ask 

Despite telling your employees it’s ok for them to stay home for personal reasons or due to illness, many people will push themselves to go into work regardless of their condition. It may take time for these employees to unlearn unhealthy working habits, and as leaders, it’s your job to help them do so.  

Take care to notice when someone seems burned out, on edge, or sick. Take the initiative to ask how they are doing. In some cases, you may need to ask twice to get a genuine answer as the robotic response of, “I’m good!” because it’s so ingrained in our unconscious reactions.  

When someone does tell you they’ve been having a hard time, or even just having a hard day, ask them to take the rest of the day off. Or suggest they take the following day off. This small act will help those who may not have even considered taking time off to take a step back and re-evaluate. These actions show employees that not only are you paying attention to their wellbeing but that you are prioritizing it.  

Lead by example 

If staying home from work makes you cringe, then this is for you. Yes, it is true that as leaders, you have the responsibility to show up consistently for your employees. But you ALSO have the responsibility to lead by example, to take care of your own wellbeing, and to show your employees that taking care of themselves isn’t just encouraged, it’s expected.  

Being open and honest about why you are taking the day off may make a more significant impact than you’d expect. For instance, if you were to tell your staff you’re taking the day off for mental health, you are doing two powerful things: 1) you’re making a statement that mental health should be prioritized, and 2) you’re showing your employees that it’s ok to acknowledge mental health in the workplace. Being known as a leader who expects their employees to act like humans and not robots is a gift both to your employees and your company.  

What goes around, comes around  

The lovely thing about becoming a company that does this is the reciprocal nature of the relationships you’re building within your company. As people are treated well and encouraged to take care of themselves, they will, in turn, treat your company well and value their roles within it. Taking this approach with your employees may have a lasting effect on their lives and your business. 

 If someone comes into your company from a culture that pushed them beyond what was healthy, their potential for growth is massive. They might not even be aware they have been burned out, but when you provide them with the opportunity they need to care for themselves, you may find that their store of energy and dedication grows and deepens beyond what you both imagined.    

Think of it like a wilted tree. The more nutrients and water you give it, the larger and more resilient it will become, bearing fruit that will feed the land around it. Nurture your employees like you would that tree, and watch as they amplify their power within your business and become the force that pushes your organization forward and up. 


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Photo by Volodymyr Melnyk