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 means the writers have bundled short term and long term conditions. This includes acute short-term illnesses like colds and flu and longer-term conditions like broken bones, back pain, and mental health problems. The headline finding straight away becomes less groundbreaking: 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

The literal definition of the term is more widely held, according to the IES report. It is important that managers and HR professionals understand the difference between presenteeism and phased or supported return to work. As presenteeism is a symptom of masking a short-term absence problem.

Cause and effect of presenteeism

Employees who are not fully fit are more likely to make mistakes and reportedly have lower productivity rates. Absence studies have found that employees are afraid going absent would put their job at risk. There is a myriad of reasons employees feel compelled to go into work even when suffering from an acute illness. However, issues related with presenteeism could mean a slower recovery for employees who do not stop to rest. This includes infection control with contagious diseases spreading at the workplace.

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 widely accepted that returning to work after a longer-term absence is good for recovery. It is beneficial for an employee’s mental health to return to work even when not 100% fit (even where the primary reason for absence is not mental-health-related). Those at risk of becoming long-term absentees should not be read as presentees. 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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