Absenteeism vs. Presenteeism: Which is more costly?

You’re sitting at your office desk, unable to concentrate. Your nose is stuffed up and your throat is dry and scratchy, making it difficult to breathe or swallow. Half of your co-workers look at you with empathy, stopping by to ask if you need anything. The other half give you side-eye for coming into work with a cold.

But you’re not the only one doing it.

In fact, 87 percent of employers report that sick employees who show up to work are suffering from short-term illnesses that can easily spread, according to the Commerce Clearing House’s Unscheduled Absence Survey.

It happens so often that it’s been given a name — presenteeism. It’s when employees go to work, but aren’t fully functioning, due to an illness or medical condition. Its counterpart — absenteeism — often gets more attention. It’s easier to recognize when someone isn’t physically present at work than when they are there, but suffering in silence.

Which is more costly? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost employers $225.8 billion annually in the United States. Employees working while sick (presenteeism) costs employers about $150 billion to $250 billion or 60 percent of the total cost of worker illness, according to the Harvard Business Review.

As a result, it’s best for employers to do their part to keep employees healthy at work — or at home when they’re not.

Here are some ways you can help.

Create a Policy for Managers & Supervisors

Managers are the second line of defense against presenteeism, after employees themselves. When employees tell their managers they don’t feel well, they should be encouraged to go home to recover. Or, if an employee calls out sick, managers should tell them to “get well soon” and avoid focusing on missed work or deadlines. If an employee is out for an extended period of time due to a serious illness or bereavement, ask team members to avoid copying him or her on emails (without sharing private details as to why). It’s a simple gesture that shows your company truly wants them to take the time to heal, not to catch up on work.

Offer Paid Leave Banks

Companies often differentiate sick days from vacation days by labeling them as such. Instead, consider creating a “paid leave bank.” Employees would be allotted the same total number of days off as the previous policy, but they could use them for any reason they’d like, no questions asked. Flexibility is invaluable for people going through a life-changing event, such as adopting a child, buying a home, or helping an elderly parent transition to an assisted-living facility. Everyday events, such as an employee’s water heater leaking, can also leave people in a bind. By offering “flex days” or “work-from-home days,” you can help them first focus on the immediate problem, and then fully concentrate on their work afterward.

Create a Culture of Well-being

The best way to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism? Promote a healthy lifestyle — inside and outside of work. Start a “fuel bar” with healthier snack options. Or schedule walking meetings during the workday and organize group cycle rides after hours. In addition, empower employees to prevent or catch chronic diseases early by facilitating onsite or offsite health screenings.

Well-being programs may also help to reduce presenteeism, according to a study out of Ontario’s Lakehead University. As a result, it’s no longer a question of whether or not your organization needs a well-being program, but rather how it should be designed, implemented, and evaluated to maximize your results.

Learn more about the benefits of investing in your employees’ well-being in our whitepaper.