Presenteeism - what is it?

What is 'presenteeism'?

'Presenteeism' is the term given when sick workers come to work, work at levels that are less than optimal, and risk infecting others. 

It is always assumed that absenteeism is a big problem for workplaces - but in fact, presenteeism can be a bigger problem. In 2014 it was calculated that absenteeism accounts for approximately $6 billion in lost productivity in Australia each year. The cost of presenteeism, on the other hand, was estimated to cost business about $25 billion each year.

There is a tendency to 'soldier on' and struggle in to work no matter how sick someone is: advertisers have picked this up and promote medications which, while helping with symptoms, do nothing to address the causes of illness. Workers who go in to work after taking cold and flu medications are still infectious.

Another consideration is that some medications - both prescription and 'over the counter' - cause drowsiness and therefore can affect a person's ability to operate machinery, creating a risk of injury to themselves, other workers and members of the public.

The best way to increase protection against influenza (the 'flu'), for example, is to be vaccinated. This is an issue HSRs should consider raising with their employers - particularly those who represent workers whose work means they come into contact with the general public or students and are at a higher risk of catching the flu.  The government-funded flu vaccine is usually available from about April.

This year, as in the past two years, the flu vaccines are quadrivalent influenza vaccines (QIVs), which contain four strains of influenza virus. The QIVs will cover two A strains of influenza (Michigan and Hong Kong) and two B strains of influenza (Brisbane and Phuket).

You should get the flu shot every year because the flu virus is constantly changing. Every year, the flu vaccine changes to match the flu virus, so it protects against the flu strains which are most likely to be around during that winter.  Also, apart from the new strains of viruses, immunity from the vaccine only lasts a short time and it is important to have a high number of antibodies circulating in our bodies to protect us from the flu.

Flu vaccinations can be organised through various (local) medical services.

What is the Employer's Responsibility?

The employer has duties under the OHS Act.

Under Section 21 of the OHS Act, the employer has a duty to provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.  Also, under Section 22, the employer has a duty to monitor the health of employees.

Taken together, an employer who is complying with the duties under the Act should be:

  • aware that during some times of the year employees will be suffering from infectious conditions;
  • monitor employees' health and take into account the effect of any medications; and
  • have in place policies which minimise the risk of other workers getting infected.

This is something that health and safety reps should take up with management, as well as the provision of flu shots. Read more about Influenza on this page.

Presenteeism bad all around - research proves it

A group of Swedish researchers have found that high workloads and other organisational factors have the effect of compelling workers to go to work when they're unwell. This significantly increases their levels of exhaustion and creates a vicious cycle that adversely affects employers.

They studied 3,525 employees of a Swedish university, and found that 38 per cent of workers who experienced eight or more days of presenteeism in the previous year were experiencing "severe" exhaustion. This compared to just seven per cent of those with no days of presenteeism. The researchers define presenteeism as "attending work while ill", and asked participants how often they went to work "despite feeling that you really should have taken sick leave due to your state of health".

Their findings echo previous research showing job demands increase the risk of exhaustion while job control reduces it.  Work-related or organisational factors that trigger presenteeism include high workloads and the need to catch up on work after taking sick leave, they say.

They said: "The pressure to go to work because of job demands may partially explain the propensity to choose presenteeism before absenteeism. This may start a reciprocal relation where presenteeism causes exhaustion and exhaustion reduces work performance, which in turn encourages more presenteeism to compensate for the impaired work ability, which then causes further exhaustion."

But workers are likely to choose to be absent from work when they need to be when there is no immediate pressure to deliver work and their co-workers aren't affected by their absence, the researchers say.

Read more: Emmanuel Aboagye, et al, Exhaustion and Impaired Work Performance in the Workplace Associations with Presenteeism and Absenteeism [Abstract - but PDF of full article can be opened from this page]. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first, August 2019, doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000001701. Source OHSAlert.

Last updated September 2019