Presenteeism at the front line:

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HALM
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

Worse than absenteeism?

It was a place a visited often so I knew a number of the front line employees there. I had even come to know the natural dispositions of each of them. This is why I could instantly tell that all was not well with one of the ladies that morning. Her eyes were unusually watery and slightly puffed up. The thin bead of perspiration on her forehead, inside an air-conditioned office, was a good enough clue that she was not her usual self.

She was doing her best to smile but if you knew her before that day, you would have easily detected that the smile was being forced. It was far from her usual. Whatever was wrong with her had taken away her usual ebullient self. It was clear that she was trying to hang in there despite the evidence that she was not well. I could only wonder why she had to come to work when it was clear that all was not well with her.

There is a name for that kind of behaviour. It is called Presenteeism.

If the word sounds familiar, it is because you have already met its closest, and more popular, relative—absenteeism. Absenteeism or the habitual absence from work without any good reason is a canker that plagues many organisations all around the world. Many studies have been done on the subject and many tomes written about its effects.

Presenteeism, on the other hand, has been defined as the phenomenon whereby workers come to work but because of illness or other medical conditions are unable to function at their maximum best. Researchers have tried to differentiate between presenteeism and other activities such as faking sickness to stay away from work or faffing around at work for no apparent reason. Presenteeism is specifically sickness-induced. It is being present at work in body but absent in spirit and soul, because of ill health.

The effects of presenteeism are not the same as absenteeism, so the studies show. With the latter, the evidence is clear. The employee stays away from work. His or her place is empty. Everyone sees it. If the individual in question happens to be the loud type, then his or her absence would be a lot more obvious.

It is true that absenteeism affects the productivity of the business but presenteeism does much more. Absenteeism can easily be penalised. The days the employee stayed away from work can easily be calculated and deducted from the one’s salary at the end of the week or the month. Dealing with presenteeism, however, is not that easy. The employee actually comes to work, gets paid and the one does less than is expected. A 2004 article in the Harvard Business Review actually claimed that “less time was actually lost from people staying home than from them showing up but not performing at the top of their game.”

So why do employees resort to presenteeism? There are a number of reasons. For instance, many ill employees would prefer to come to work rather than stay at home because they do not want those sick days off to be taken from their annual leave allotment. The normal practice is for unwell employees to bring medical reports from doctors clearly stating the sick days recommended. However, the truth is that it is not every ailment gets taken to the hospital or gets treated by medical doctors. So individuals who takes some herbal medication or some homemade concoction would still come to work despite not being in the best of health.

Presenteeism can also occur because there are some front line employees who just love what they do and would do anything to come to work even when they obviously should not. I have come across a couple of such individuals over the years. Only a serious life-threatening disease can ever keep these people away from work.

For some “presentees”, it is about fear of losing their jobs. If the work environment is so competitive that staying away can get one fired, then the one has no other choice than to come to work, even if the one’s head is falling off the one’s neck. When there are rumours of upcoming layoffs, it would take the very brave to stay home, even if the one is not too well. If your superiors are already on your case—looking for something to use against you—it might not be a very wise decision to stay at home, even when you are sick. Studies have also shown that presenteeism is more prevalent when there are dire economic times. When people are afraid of losing their jobs, they will come to work, even if it would kill them.

There are also those front line employees who know the importance of their role in the overall success of their organisations and so would come to work, even when they are not feeling well. This is especially true when they know that is no other staff to take their place at the front line. These are the employees who will justify their presenteeism by arguing that everyone has one form of ailment or another and still come to work. So why should they stay at home? These are the employees who would argue that if everyone were to stay away from work when they feel a little sick, then no work would be done. They further argue that presenteeism is very much a part of working life and there is very little that can be done about it.

There is also the peculiar case of some female front line employees who have to go through painful episodes during “that time of the month”. The work environment can sometimes be so hard-hearted that it cares very little for a woman going through such an episode. Even if the abdominal cramps are as painful as they could be, the front line employees would still be expected to come to work. But the question is, does the one still perform at the expected level?

No matter how well a sick individual tries to mask the ailment, it tends to show. There are some symptoms that can be hard to conceal. Something like a common cold can be hidden for only so long. An unexpected cough or sneeze would eventually reveal that sickness. An itch might be difficult to hide if it is quite severe.

One of the commonest symptoms that we have all gone to work with is the nagging headache. There is nothing more frustrating than attempting to work with a severe sore head. Concentration levels fall to almost zero under such conditions—and if under such conditions, one still has to keep a great smile in front of customers, the stress can be daunting.

It is also important to note that different types of workers handle different types of ailments differently. An ailment that can greatly affect a banker would not have that much of an effect on a labourer at a construction site. A little headache can have a devastating effect on the work of a knowledge worker than it can have on someone whose job requires mainly manual labour.

The challenge of presenteeism at the front line is that unlike other departments, units and schedules which might be hidden from the customer’s view, front line employees have to face customers. Therefore, if a customer-handling employee is not well, customers would eventually get to know—and some customers would even ask questions.

In the period we find ourselves in, with the plague of COVID-19 still hanging around, the implications of presenteeism could be more far-reaching. Customers will definitely not be too comfortable around employees who are evidently sick but still report to work, especially at the front line. Back office staff who are unwell but still come to work are only a risk to their colleagues but those at the front line are risking the lives of both internal and external customers.

It has been estimated that presenteeism accounts for as much as a one-third drop of an individual’s productivity. There have been several studies that have concluded that presenteeism costs companies billions of dollars a year. When one considers the potential loss of business that arises when customers decide to take their business away because they would not want to be served by a sick employee, the figures do not look so doubtful.

Some forward-looking organisations, with an appreciation of the significance of presenteeism, are taking the bull by the horns. These organisations are investing into more advanced medical screening of employees on a more regular basis. Employee health is very high on the agenda of these organisations. These organisations know that presenteeism is one of those challenges that every organisation must find its own way of handling. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Customer service is the kind of job schedule that requires an emotional input to be complete. Customers pay for not just a service or a product. They also pay for the emotions that come with the product or service. If there is anything that can affect the delivery of that emotion, then there is every cause to be worried. No matter how well trained an individual is, the truth is that, a thumping headache, an upset tummy, watery eyes, etc. can still affect the quality of the one’s delivery. The one would not be able to smile as the one would want to. The warmth expected to exude the one would be affected. Businesses cannot just sweep the phenomenon of presenteeism under the carpet. The effects would eventually be too prominent, too devastating, to remain hidden.

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