Sick but Still at Work – What’s the Real Cost of “Presenteeism”?

Our whole lives we’ve been taught to “just show up”. Inspirational quotes like “Life is about showing up” have been instilled in us as children and teenagers. Throughout school, we are rewarded for attendance and penalized for absenteeism. That trend continues in college and in the workplace.  We understand absenteeism, but have you heard of “presenteeism”? It’s when sick employees come to work: the act of being present when you probably shouldn’t be. Presenteeism may not be as honorable as you think—it has its costs.

If you search the Internet for “sick at work” or “presenteeism” you will find several articles saying that as many as 90% of employees go to work knowing that they are sick or even contagious. Employees who are present while sick risk infecting other employees and their families, which only continues the cycle of illness and lost production. In short, presenteeism ends up costing the company more money in lost productivity than absenteeism.

‘>So why does this really happen?

There is plenty of research reflecting the fact that sick employees cost millions in lost productivity annually. Absenteeism is such a concern that many employers do not offer leave-of-absence or time-off benefits, which means that if an employee does not show up for work, he or she will not be compensated and/or could be reprimanded. Financial statistics claim that most workers only have enough in savings to last one month. So missing work is not an option without paid leave. Other companies offer paid time off, yet their employees feel the need to show up when they’re sick anyway. All of these factors lead to presenteeism.

Articles like “Why Your Sick Co-worker Insists on Coming to Work” on CBS News suggest that the reason is two-fold. On the one hand, companies do not offer paid time off to cover illness or the amount offered does not cover the amount of time needed to recover, so employees come to work when they’re sick. The second point the article makes is that many sick employees practice presenteeism because they have deadlines that no one else in the company can handle.

Employers rarely send sick employees home, for fear of creating an incident. In the U.S., the Federal “Americans with Disabilities Act” has several provisions and one is that an employer can not presume someone is disabled or unable to perform his or her job duties. Employers must be sure that sending an employee home is in the best interest of that employee, clients, and the remaining staff, or they could end up at a mediation table.

Coming to work when you are sick can make you look like a hero and a real team player. Remember Michael Jordan back in 1997, during the NBA Championship series against the Utah Jazz? Jordan had the flu and could barely walk on and off the court between time-outs.  His teammate Scottie Pippen had to basically carry him to the bench. Michael scored 38 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. As noble as that may sound, this kind of extreme doesn’t translate well to the office. There should be an ongoing team dynamic in your organization that provides ways to communicate, collaborate, and share information so projects can be completed and deadlines met if someone happens to be sick.

Companies need to do a better job of educating their employees about the cost of presenteeism, and letting them know that it’s best to take the time they need to get better, rather than come to work and risk the health of their fellow co-workers. Ideally your employees should be able to take time off without fear of losing their job, being excluded from major projects, disciplinary action, or losing out on pay.


  • Lilly says:

    I think the presenteeism rate within any organization to great extent depends on the company culture and office environment. If an employee is constantly under pressure and struggling to do the impossible by meeting tight deadline accompanied by a bossy manager then there’s no wonder employee wants to go to all lengths to get the job done in order to avoid any trouble.

  • Matthew Jones says:

    I agree that presenteeism may be the fault of company culture, but unfortunately it’s peculiar to too many jobs that some tasks are not so easy to be taken over by another employee. In today’s ongoing economic downturn employees worry even more and the perspective of unaccomplished task or missed deadline scares them to death.

  • Elma says:

    To me it looks like there are only two types of employees in the company I work – they’re either infected by absenteeism or presenteeism. There’s no golden mead – people either hate their jobs so much they try to skip work at every possible moment or they’re extreme workaholics and never leave their workplace. And if I as an ordinary employee don’t worry that much about absenteeism, then presenteeism bugs me a lot, because people coming to work sick threaten my health, therefore I think managers have to work on dealing with this problem.

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