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Toxic Workplace? 4 Tips to Discourage E-Presenteeism

October 20th, 2022

Human Resources, Hiring, Hiring Process, HR Trends

6 min read

The worker who’s always the first one to clock in and the last one to clock out, who answers emails and Slack messages at all hours of the day, and who always logs on (even when feeling sick)—do they sound like a model employee? To some, they might. Until you start looking at the whole picture.

For example, does that employee make more mistakes than their coworkers (given that at least one American study has linked presenteeism with an increase in errors)? Do they actually end up producing the same amount as others working fewer hours (since stats reveal that past a certain point, extra hours don’t produce more work)? Or are they stressed and maybe even on the verge of a burnout (given that studies show how presenteeism often leads to exhaustion and eventually burnout)?

When you use an employee’s “presence”—whether virtual or in the office—as the most important measure of their performance, you miss key information while reinforcing destructive behaviour that ultimately harms employees and employers alike. It even contributes to and exacerbates a toxic workplace culture, making it an important problem to solve.

Here’s a closer look at the effects of e-presenteeism on workplace culture as well as how you can address it.

E-Presenteeism and Presenteeism in the Workplace

Absenteeism is often seen as the biggest threat to workplace productivity. When an employee stays home, it must mean less work is done, right? Wrong. There's something that has a more devastating effect on productivity, product quality, and a company's bottom line: presenteeism and e-presenteeism.

What Is Presenteeism?

Old-fashioned presenteeism occurs when employees come into work despite being sick or otherwise unfit to perform their duties. Despite not feeling well, they show up anyways and try their best to muddle through an unproductive day. Think “phoning it in”.

Presenteeism is a problem that can affect any employee within an organization that fosters an “always on” culture. It’s also a problem that may have a larger impact on younger employees just establishing their careers, as well as people living with invisible disabilities and mental illnesses. In fact, one study found that “55% [of younger workers admitted] to turning up for work but feeling unable to perform at their peak productivity, compared to just 38% of employees aged 45 or over.”

Presenteeism is also quite common. Over two-thirds of respondents to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Health and Wellbeing at Work report said they’d seen some form of presenteeism in 2021. And, despite more companies saying they were taking steps to address the problem this year, just 27% said they’d be investigating the root causes behind the issue.

The Effects of Presenteeism

When employees routinely show up to work not feeling their best, it can lead to:

 

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Researchers have found that less time is lost from people staying home than from them showing up but not performing at full capacity.” As a result, it’s no wonder that companies the world over are looking for ways to reduce presenteeism. However, since the start of the pandemic and the rise of remote work, a new type of problem has emerged. Enter e-presenteeism.

What Is E-Presenteeism?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work was sometimes offered as a solution to presenteeism in the United States. However, once remote work became more widespread, it quickly became apparent that there’s a bit more to the problem. Allowing employees to work from home doesn’t address the root causes behind presenteeism and might even exacerbate them.

E-presenteeism, like presenteeism, tends to happen at companies with an “always on” culture. However, e-presenteeism isn’t just a digital version of presenteeism. It goes a little further than simply showing up to work sick because it also involves keeping work notifications on at all times and living with the expectation that employees should step in and reply to their boss as soon as they receive a message from them.

The Effects of E-Presenteeism

The problems caused by e-presenteeism are similar to those of presenteeism. It leads to employees feeling more stress, being less productive per hour worked, and possibly making more mistakes as their exhaustion begins to set in. Because it erases the boundary between work life and home life, employees caught in e-presenteeism may be especially vulnerable to burnout.

Is E-Presenteeism Bad?

In a nutshell, yes e-presenteeism is bad. At its heart, e-presenteeism is about “being physically [or virtually] in your seat at work just to look dedicated, no matter how unproductive.”

E-presenteeism main 2

For e-presenteeism to occur in a workplace, employees need to feel that working while unwell is their only way to gain their boss’s approval, keep their position, and/or advance their career. Or, the employee might not have enough sick days to have any other option, or no replacement able to step in and cover their duties. There’s plenty of data to support this. In fact, one survey found that the top reasons why employees came to work sick were:

 

  • 54% had too much work
  • 40% didn’t want to use a sick day
  • 34% felt pressured to do so
  • 25% did so because they had seen coworkers work while sick too

 

In short, the root causes that lead to e-presenteeism point to larger issues within a workplace’s culture and policies.

How Do Workplace Cultures Foster E-Presenteeism Directly and Indirectly?

Sometimes it can be easy to spot how a culture of e-presenteeism began at a workplace. Some of the more obvious causes of e-presenteeism are:

  • encouraging employees to work overtime
  • reprimanding employees who don’t answer messages immediately
  • not providing enough sick days
  • understaffing departments

 

In other cases, well-meaning managers may accidentally foster an “always on” culture by:

  • not respecting their own work-life balance
  • not cross-training employees
  • not accounting for unexpected illness when creating project timelines

 

Fortunately, even when workplaces accidentally foster a culture of e-presenteeism, there are steps they can take to address the problem.

What Can HR Leaders Do to Identify and Prevent E-Presenteeism?

It’s important to note that e-presenteeism is a symptom of poorly-executed remote working policies rather than a feature of remote work as a whole. This means that solving the problem doesn’t mean abandoning remote work and the many benefits it can provide.

1. Use Technology to Track Project Hours and Manage Timelines

It might seem counterintuitive, but using technology is a great way to manage e-presenteeism. Automated project tracking software can help managers visualize e-presenteeism by displaying who’s doing what and when. It also helps employees advocate for themselves when they have too much on their to-do lists.

E-presenteeism

Using HR tools to manage objectives and set clear goals can help to promote a healthier relationship with work tasks. It’s important to be clear, however, that the goal of this isn’t to monitor hours spent working: It’s about ensuring that people are being effectively resourced without being overworked.

2. Develop Policies That Support Wellbeing

Employers can also support the wellbeing of their workers by offering extra paid leave, maximizing the flexibility of working arrangements, and providing tailored mental health services.

Even small changes can make a difference. Scheduling regular check-ins, encouraging vacation requests, setting clear expectations, reminding recipients that they don’t need to answer emails immediately, and adding working hours to email signatures are all soft-touch ways of discouraging e-presenteeism. We do this at Certn.

3. Cross-Train Employees

Sometimes when an employee works while ill, they do so because they’re the only one capable of completing a certain task. This is where it can be useful to document procedures and cross-train employees, so that others are able to step in when necessary.

How you frame this cross-training can make it even more beneficial. For example, SHRM suggests “A thoughtful, strategic approach,” that frames “cross-training as a career development opportunity for employees to acquire additional skills and experience.”

4. Lead by Example

Even the best policies will eventually erode away if people don’t feel comfortable making use of them. This is why managers need to lead by example and embody what they want to see in their employees.

 

  • Are they logging off on time?
  • Taking time for a real lunch break?
  • Using their vacation time?

 

The effect of a positive influence ‘from the top’ should not be underestimated. When employees see their manager working while sick and answering messages at all hours, they may in turn feel the need to do the same. It’s the type of problem that can creep in unexpectedly, as managers believe they’re demonstrating their commitment to their employees by going above and beyond. Unfortunately, if left unchecked, this trend can lead employees to model that same behaviour—or even for managers to fall victim to the very burnout they were trying to prevent.

E-presenteeism main 1

To Sum It Up: E-Presenteeism Is Harmful, But You Can Fix It

“Always on” working cultures have taken on renewed potency at the expense of employee wellbeing. But prioritizing mental and physical health doesn’t need to come at the expense of productivity. Being aware of the signs of e-presenteeism and following these steps can help:

 

  • Make good use of the right technology
  • Double down on wellness policies
  • Cross-train employees and document processes
  • Lead by example

 

By developing the right work policies and encouraging everyone to follow them, you can ensure that your model employees are the ones producing excellent work while also feeling refreshed, healthy, and able to do their best work when they log on.

Are you looking for other ways to level up your workplace? Check out our blog about how background checks can help all departments within your business.

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