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Presenteeism: A new word for working when sick


November 24, 2011
By Amanda Ryder


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sickworkerNEWS HIGHLIGHT

Presenteeism: A new word for working when sick

Colleagues who work with runny noses, sore throats and clammy skin are as
seasonal as the flu. A new study from Concordia University has found that presenteeism, i.e., attending work when ill, isn’t always a productive option.

Nov. 24, 2011 – Colleagues who work with runny noses, sore throats and clammy skin
are as seasonal as the flu. Yet are sick employees workplace troopers or
are they insecure about their jobs? A new study from Concordia
University, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, has found that presenteeism, i.e. attending work when ill, isn’t always a productive option.

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Depending
on individuals and their roles within an organization, sick employees
can be present in body and not in spirit, while others can be ill and
fully functional. “Secure employees don’t fear retribution for an
occasional absence because of sickness,” says study author Gary Johns, a
management professor at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. 

So
why do employees with acute, chronic or episodic illness work rather
than stay home? Caregivers and people working in early education, for
example, report higher rates of presenteeism compared to people from
other fields. “Often, a person might feel socially obligated to attend
work despite illness,” says Johns, “while other employees feel
organizational pressure to attend work despite medical discomfort.”

Average of three presenteeism days
As part of his investigation, Johns surveyed 444 people on their job
requirements, work experience, absenteeism and presenteeism. Over the
previous six months, participants reported an average of three
presenteeism days and an average of 1.8 absenteeism days, most of which
were attributed to illness.

“Respondents who viewed absenteeism
as more legitimate reported more absences, more sick days and fewer
presenteeism days,” says Johns.

Johns’ study found presenteeism
was elevated among workers engaged in interdependent projects or
teamwork. Those who were insecure about their jobs also engaged in more
presenteeism.  “Presentees felt a compulsion to attend despite illness,”
says Johns.

When absence is frowned upon
According
to this and previous studies, presenteeism is more frequent when people
face job insecurity and impermanent job status.  Absenteeism, however,
is more elevated in unionized work settings or when unemployment is low.

Organizations,
employers and human resources departments have traditionally examined
ways to curb absenteeism, but have paid little attention to
presenteeism. “Estimating the cost of absenteeism is more tangible than
counting the impact of presenteeism,” says Johns. “Yet a worker’s
absence — or presence — during illness can have both costs and benefits
for constituents.”


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