80% of workers said they experienced presenteeism in their workplace. But what is it?

The dictionary defines presenteeism as ‘the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job.’

If there’s one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that being chained to a desk, spending hours in the company of your co-workers face-to-face, and just generally being present in an office is not necessary for getting most jobs done. However, presenteeism is still, well, present in most workplaces.

Is being in the office for set hours each day actually beneficial?

According to the experts, it isn’t.

Presenteeism – the simple act of spending 40+ hours in your office chair each week in the hopes of impressing your boss and seeming more dedicated – costs the nation’s economy billions as ill people turn up to work and infect others rather than recover at home, people work themselves to the point of burnout, and it also creates an environment which makes others feel like they have to do the same.

And in terms of productivity, simply having your bum in an office chair actually hinders workplace productivity rather than helps, according to research.

But despite the studies that prove its ineffectiveness, presenteeism is still rife across the UK. It would be easy to assume also that the pandemic would mean a phasing out of overworking for the sake of it. However, it seems to have had the opposite effect. 


In fact, presenteeism is now just moving online. People are now working longer than ever before – checking emails in to the dead of night, and using what was once their commute time to get a jump start on the day ahead. 

Why do bosses still believe simply being present is the most important factor for job productivity?

Clinging to a presenteeism culture just favours those “who have the time to show up early and leave late”, says Brandy Aven, associate professor of organisational theory, strategy and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, US. Aven also points out that this can unfairly favour some workers over others – parents may have no choice but to leave early, for example.

How can we cut out presenteeism from the workplace?

Scott Sonenshein, professor of organisational behaviour at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston, Texas, says bosses should lead by example to reset working environment attitudes.

People are going to eventually burn out – this has been a big struggle for people for the last 15 months,” says Sonenshein. “It’s this arms race for who seems to work the most.” That the behaviour has transferred from physical desks to online shows how deeply it’s ingrained in our work lives.

“You would hope that during a pandemic, there would be a switch.” But, without a good hard look at our ingrained biases, transformation may be tough. “Unfortunately,” says Sonenshein, “I’m not sure things are really going to change.”

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