How Presenteeism Affects Workplaces and What to do about it.

You’re at work but you’re not at work.  Have you known that experience?  We turn up physically but have checked out mentally.  The gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train ain’t coming.  There’s activity all around us but we struggle to stay engaged on the inside.  That’s not to say we don’t want be at work, or have a need to be in work.  In fact, it is an oppositeness to absenteeism.

While outwardly disguising their pain, distress and discomfort, most workers so affected keep presenting for work, trying to push on each day, perhaps some even working longer hours than necessary.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, can we really stay on our game when we’re distracted by our health?  How can we remain focused and fully functioning if we’re dealing with depression and chronic stress, troubled by irritable bowel syndrome, miserable with migraines, suffering from seasonal allergies, endlessly fighting fatigue and agonising with persistent neck and lower back pain?  It is inevitable that the quality and quantity of our work is impacted.


Reduced performance and lower productivity is a big cost to business.  And, because signs of unwellness at work mainly go unnoticed and untreated, studies have shown that it can lead to an even greater cost burden for businesses than is attributable to absenteeism. Then on top of that, there’s the workers’ increased vulnerability to even more serious illnesses.

Most often we do our best work when we’re feeling good.  Improving worker wellness therefore must be in the best interest of both a business and its workers.  Healthy workers = healthier workplace = expected healthier performance.

In Australia we also cannot overlook facing an aging workforce which in itself has implications for organisations, and even more so when viewed through the lens of presenteeism.  In addressing the issue of presenteeism, each business has to decide what is right for their own situation and what investment they are willing to make.  Taking an investment approach to improving worker health, rather than having a cost mentality, is hedging against lost productivity and diminished profits.


Where wellbeing programs are being established in workplaces the research is pointing to it contributing to positive employee engagement and enhanced creativity and innovation.  Now what organisation doesn’t want a healthier, edgier and more innovative workforce?  It is vital for staying competitive.  So then, what are gateway strategies to worker wellness as a presenteeism preventative?  Here are some suggested steps for where to start…

AWARENESS:  Lead from the top.  Change takes courage and business leaders need to first build awareness of the concept of presenteeism within their management team and the high costs of lost productivity if ignored.

EDUCATION:  Promote understanding throughout the whole organisation as to the importance of having a healthy workforce and highlighting that everyone benefits when health and wellbeing is prioritised.

FEEDBACK:  Seek feedback by introducing staff surveys as a measurement tool to gauge the extent of worker’s health issues. These can be conducted confidentially, so individuals can remain anonymous, but the process establishes a benchmark and helps set the direction for where to focus help for improving worker wellness.

OPENNESS:  Facilitate open dialogue so employees are encouraged to share their workplace health concerns in a safe way without any fear of punitive judgement or discrimination.

ENGAGEMENT:  Identify what support and resources are needed and begin making them available.  For example, a nutritionist may be brought in to share insights about healthy dieting; an asthma sufferer could be relocated to a less dustier environment; a desk-based person with back problems might be offered an ergonomic chair; and access to an EAP program may allow staff with depression or chronic stress an opportunity to connect with a counsellor to express their thoughts and feelings and learn coping skills and strategies.  A benefit here too is the change of perception, because of the shift of focus, employees begin feeling more valued and advantaged by their employer which in turn increases the tendency for employees to become more engaged.

COMMITMENT:  Make health and wellbeing practices a cultural imperative. Monitor and audit worker wellness for continual improvement. Have a long-term strategy by developing whole of worklife wellbeing programs for workers.

Just because presenteeism is a relatively new concept, it doesn’t mean it is without substance. More research will undoubtedly be conducted, however studies so far are indicating that compared to the cost of productivity losses of absenteeism, the presenteeism cost factor can be up to several times higher.  This means businesses who get on-board with productivity health and wellbeing programs potentially can look forward to saving money, boosting productivity and creating a more sustainable, healthier and engaged workforce.

A personal message from Rohan:
We live in a fast-changing world in which taking care of our health and wellness, and each other, is more important than ever. As an experienced counselling practitioner I’m dedicated to helping people improve their relationships, outlook on life and overall wellbeing, offering therapy within an accepting, caring, safe and private environment. I believe that each person’s emotional response to life’s situations and circumstances is uniquely complex, which is why I draw on a diversity of counselling methods to tailor an approach that best meets the distinctive needs of each individual client, couple or family unit.


Allen, D., Breitenbach, E., Wandtke Hines, E., Tierney Konecny, L. & Pazdernik, V. (2018). Four-year review of presenteeism data among employees of a large United States health care system: a retrospective prevalence study. Human Resources for Health. 2018; 16:59.  Retrieved from

Comcare. Benefits to business: the evidence for investing in worker health and wellbeing.  Retrieved from,_89.4_KB.pdf

Gahan, P., Harbridge. R., Healy, J. & Williams, R. (2016). The ageing workforce: policy dilemmas and choices. Australian Journal of Public Administration. Retrieved from

Hemp, P. Presenteeism: At work – but out of it. Harvard Business Review. October 2004. Retrieved from