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‘Presenteeism’ and ‘leavism’: Bad for workers, bad for business

Sick worker
Image: diego_cervo/iStockphoto

Anyone who has gone to school or has a job has probably heard the term “absenteeism.” But what about “presenteeism” and “leavism”? Although not as widely talked about, both presenteeism and leavism can have serious health and safety repercussions for both workers and employers.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and other organizations define presenteeism as an employee going to work despite being ill or having a work-affecting injury.

“Presenteeism can cause workers to be less productive than normal, have a lower morale, and become fatigued more easily as they are experiencing different bodily effects on top of their sickness or injury symptoms,” IOSH cautions, adding that, “the accumulation of some of these effects can lead to mental ill health and negative well-being.”

“Leavism” is slightly different. It occurs, according to IOSH, when a worker uses scheduled time off to perform work tasks or make themselves “always available.”

IOSH lists five negative effects of presenteeism and leavism:

  1. Employees who come to work sick may be more prone to stress and poor mental health.
  2. Sick workers or employees who engage in leavism are more likely to be tired and have low morale and impaired cognitive functioning.
  3. Employees who work through an illness may take longer to recover.
  4. Presenteeism and leavism may result in problems at work and in the worker’s personal life, including reduction in physical activity, poor sleep, the use of alcohol or recreational drugs, behavior changes, and poor eating habits.
  5. Workers showing up sick can result in high financial costs, as illnesses are more likely to be spread, causing other employees to miss work.

Presenteeism prevention

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employers can help curb presenteeism by:

Establishing paid sick leave policies. “The average working American takes 5.2 sick days annually,” SHRM states, “so relatively healthy employees should realistically allocate five or six [paid time off] days to sick leave.”

Being flexible. SHRM encourages flexible work arrangements, suggesting that letting employees decide when and where they work can contribute to better work-life balance. Flextime, compressed workweeks, job sharing and shift work are all examples of flexible work arrangements. “The most successful FWAs are mutually beneficial partnerships between employees and employers,” SHRM notes. “HR can facilitate those conversations and help articulate policies, procedures and expectations.”

Encouraging breaks. Are your workers burned out? Encourage them to take short breaks to replenish their energy. This may mean a quick chat with a co-worker, engaging in a walking meeting or taking a short nap.

Cross-training workers. If workers are coming in sick because there isn’t anyone else to fill in for them, cross-training workers may help alleviate that pressure. “Knowing they have backup allows sick employees to stay home without feeling guilty or anxious,” SHRM adds.

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