Presenteeism.  By definition implies lack of absence.

Presenteeism vs work as means of rehabilitation

The Institute of Employment Studies (IES) published a review of presenteeism in May 2016. Occupational Health & Wellbeing reported that the headline finding of the report was that presenteeism can be beneficial. Reading the report itself, it is obvious that the writers use a different definition of ‘presenteeism’ from the one we at Honeydew would use.

Defining presenteeism

The IES report defines presenteeism simply as “showing up for work when one is ill”. Using such a simple interpretation of the term without differentiating the types of illness means the writers have bundled together acute short term illnesses like colds and flu with longer term conditions like broken bones, back pain and mental health problems. The headline finding straight away becomes less ground breaking: of course being able to return to work is a good thing for those who suffer from long term ill health complaints.

Distinction between presenteeism and rehabilitation

Reading the IES report gave rise to the thought that perhaps the literal definition of the term is more widely held. It is important that managers and HR professionals understand the difference between presenteeism – a symptom of masking a short term absence problem – and phased or supported return to work.

Cause and effect of presenteeism

Presenteeism has been highlighted as an issue because employees who are not fully fit are more likely to make mistakes and reportedly have lower productivity rates. It has also come up in studies of absence issues where it has become apparent that employees are afraid that going absent would put their job at risk or are for other reasons compelled to go into work even when suffering from an acute illness. The issues related with presenteeism include infection control with contagious diseases spreading at the workplace and slower recovery for employees who do not stop to rest.

Long term absentees should be encouraged to work

In our reading and interpretation of presenteeism as a phenomenon, it has never included long term absentees returning to work. Quite the opposite, it is a widely accepted fact that returning to work even when not 100% fit after a longer term absence is good for recovery and beneficial for mental health (even where the primary reason for absence is not mental health related). Nor should presenteeism be read to include those in risk of becoming long term absentees. The longer an employee stays absent, the lower the chances of a successful return to work. As soon as someone feels well enough to work, doing so should be encouraged.

Presenteeism by definition implies lack of absence

Perhaps an easier definition would be to focus on the distinction that usually presenteeism manifests itself before an absence takes place. The issue of employees not taking time off is at the core of presenteeism. Returning to work as a means of rehabilitation is another matter altogether and typically follows a period of medium to long term absence.


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