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How HR Can Help Curb Presenteeism

Employees working while unwell can have a negative impact on an organization

A group of people sitting at a desk in an office.

​Hillary Clinton tried to power her way through a bout of pneumonia during her 2016 presidential campaign. It only became obvious that she was sick after she nearly collapsed while attending a Sept. 11 memorial service.

Clinton's bout with illness shines a spotlight on presenteeism, a term for working while unwell. Bosses may want to commend employees for their over-the-top effort, but they should take pains to discourage presenteeism. Here are reasons why you should discourage presenteeism and suggestions for how to stop it.

High job satisfaction, a positive attribute, can trigger presenteeism. Highly motivated people who have an intense commitment to an organization or a cause are driven to keep working, in spite of poor health. But this can have a negative impact on the organization as well as the individual.  

At least six people working closely with Clinton fell ill too, highlighting additional risks: Sick people can spread their illnesses, and leaders who embrace overwork could see a cascading effect throughout the organization.

Researcher Ray Merrill and his associates studied presenteeism in 21,000 employees at three geographically dispersed companies. There were a raft of reasons for presenteeism: poor physical and mental health, financial stress, workplace conflicts, inadequate training, and personal problems. 

Researchers found that managerial support and structured employee wellness programs were key to eradicating presenteeism. 

"The one viable way to improve employee health and lower presenteeism is to implement an effective health management strategy," Merrill said. 

Paid-Sick-Leave Policies

Forty-one million people in the workforce don't receive paid sick leave, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They come to work sick because they can't afford not to work. 

"Everyone needs to be able to take time off and still be able to pay for groceries," said Zoe Ziliak Michel, a health policy analyst with anti-poverty organization CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy, in Washington, D.C. "High-road employers understand that when they treat workers well, [workers] will be loyal and productive." 

While some employers balk at the perceived expenditures, there's no hard evidence that paid sick leave drives up costs or that employees abuse the policy, Michel said. 

"Offering paid sick time benefits our employees and our company," said Angela Earle-Gray, director of HR at Chroma Technology, a manufacturing company in Bellows Falls, Vt. "Our employees do work that requires a great deal of focus and concentration. If they were to work [while they were] ill, there is a high probability they would make more errors, which would potentially cost us more than the cost of paid sick time." 

Paid time off (PTO) policies sometimes contribute to the problem, especially for employees who horde PTO days for vacations, rather than use them as sick days. 

HR can provide guidelines to help employees better understand how they can help themselves through judicious use of PTO. The average working American takes 5.2 sick days annually, so relatively healthy employees should realistically allocate five or six PTO days to sick leave. 

Financial Wellness Works

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's 2015 National Financial Capability study found that "financial capability" varies greatly by socio-economic status and demographics. Overall, study authors found, many Americans struggle to make ends meet, plan ahead and make good financial decisions. Financial challenges run the gamut from student loans, excessive debt, asset management and college education funds to retirement planning.   

Financial stress can spill over into the workplace where it presages high rates of a different kind of presenteeism—this time, where workers are on the job but not really working. An Alliant Credit Union study shows that a worker with financial problems spends 15 minutes per workday dealing with personal financial matters. That adds up to 62.5 hours annually. 

The link between financial stress and job performance is fueling the growth of employer-sponsored financial wellness programs. In an Aon Hewitt survey, more than 75 percent of organizations planned to provide or expand financial wellness resources. HR can partner with vendors to tailor financial wellness tools and programs to the specific needs of their employees. 

Programs are best delivered through the medium that employees prefer. Educational seminars, online tools and individual coaching are all widely used. 

Mobile apps like ALEX, an online virtual assistant created by Jellyvision Labs in Chicago, provide help with tasks like benefits enrollment and offer financial advice and information 24/7. 

Staples has turned to gamification to help employees. "Farm Blitz," an interactive online video game, was created by and for low-income workers at FableVision Studios to simulate the processes of developing good savings habits and avoiding accumulation of debt.  

Financial wellness programs are not "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" resources. HR must vigorously promote and actively oversee these programs to introduce employees to the resource and ensure they use it. 

Flexible Work Arrangements

"People are strapped beyond imagination with their workloads, and their attempts to strike harmony between work, family, health, hobbies, life goals," said Dr. Jack Groppel, co-founder of Johnson & Johnson's Human Performance Institute (HPI) in Orlando, Fla. "They need to connect to what really matters to them. Once that is in place, they must find the rhythm in life that works for them." 

Flexible work arrangements (FWAs) encourage work/life balance by giving people greater latitude to decide when, where, and how they work. Flextime, compressed workweeks, shift work, job sharing and telecommuting are widely accepted FWAs. 

According to Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting organization in Carlsbad, Calif., remote employment has grown by 103 percent since 2005. Fifty percent of U.S. workers hold a job that is compatible with at least partial telework, and most employees whose jobs are compatible with teleworking could do so most effectively for two to three days a week. 

The most successful FWAs are mutually beneficial partnerships between employees and employers. HR can facilitate those conversations and help articulate policies, procedures and expectations. 

The Resilience Solution

Resilience is often defined as the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change and keep going in the face of adversity. Truly resilient people can "bounce forward" when confronted with challenging conditions by transforming stressful situations into opportunities for growth. 

The widespread need to proactively manage stress has given rise to resilience training and coaching programs.  

As the director of wellness and resiliency strategy, integration and coaching at Goldman Sachs financial services company in New York City, Elizabeth Sudler designed and implemented the company's Americas' Global Resiliency Strategy during the 2009 financial crisis. 

Sudler's strategy encompasses stress management, stress prevention and treatment. Mindfulness training is a core component because of its emphasis on self-awareness, self-control and mental clarity. 

To determine the most appropriate resilience strategy, HR should talk to management about what they want the training to accomplish. At Goldman Sachs, the goal is optimal performance, both personally and professionally. 

Companies can choose from an a la carte menu of resilience training options or implement a comprehensive strategy. Managers at Goldman Sachs participate in quarterly resilience training, and resilience coaches are always available onsite.  

Hit the Pause Button

Heavy workloads, understaffing, overtime and time pressures foreshadow presenteeism. Burnout, which is defined as physical and mental exhaustion from stress and overwork, is inevitable. 

In Workforce Management for the HR Leader's Soul, an e-book produced by Workforce Software, researchers identified six signs that employees are coming to work exhausted:

  • Out-of-check emotions.
  • Consistent lateness.
  • Cluttered workspace.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Disregard for team members.
  • Productivity dips despite long hours. 

"My goal for any of these people [suffering burnout] is to stop and assess the truth. The key is to decide 'what' will work, and then each person must set limits and create boundaries," said Groppel of Johnson & Johnson's HPI, noting that managers must be aware of these signs and, if necessary, take action by talking to their employees. 

HPI teaches a holistic approach to energy management that integrates physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. 

To replenish energy throughout the day, HPI recommends multiple daily "microbursts." These are short (5- to 10-minute) breaks to replenish energy reserves.  The goal is for employees to interrupt whatever they're doing and redirect their effort and attention toward an energy-restoring activity: taking a short nap, going for a walk, chatting with a friend. 

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner has two daily 30-minute "walking meetings" on the bike path behind the company's California headquarters. These walks effectively meet all four core energy needs and, as a bonus, build camaraderie among co-workers. 

Observant HR professionals can alert leaders to the existence of stale, time-wasting business practices and recommend changes. For example, a Microsoft survey of 38,000 workers in 200 countries found that people spend 5.6 hours in meetings weekly; 69percent of respondents considered meetings "not productive." 

Asana, Dropbox and Facebook, among others, have declared "No Meeting Wednesdays" to free employees up for more productive and deliberative activities. 

Build a Bench

Overworked employees are more likely to get sick and drag themselves into the office when they aren't feeling well, because there's no one to fill in. 

Cross-training can alleviate pressure. Knowing they have back up allows sick employees to stay home without feeling guilty or anxious. A thoughtful, strategic approach can introduce cross-training as a career development opportunity for employees to acquire additional skills and experience. 

"Helping workers grow by giving them exciting assignments and training them to be leaders is the best way to build loyalty," said Jody Miller, founder and CEO of Business Talent Group (BTG) in Los Angeles. 

However, it may also be necessary to look outside the organization for reinforcements when employees are not ready or available to fill in. 

"What's wonderful about the world today is that there are an increasing number of people across all professions who are looking for project-based work. That means as a manager you have more options to bring in more talent when you need it," Miller said. "It makes it easier for managers to take on a new project, get help with capacity when there's extra demand, or bring in expertise they don't already have." 

BTG has a pool of over 6,000 independent management consultants and former corporate executives who are available for projects or to take on interim roles. So if the bench looks weak, HR can bring in reinforcements.   

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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