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People & Team


How to break the culture of presenteeism in a busy workplace

A culture of presenteeism can lead to burnout.

Presenteeism is the practice of employees being present at work when they’re disengaged or unwell. How can businesses tackle the productivity problems this causes?

According to CIPD research from earlier this year, 86% of businesses have observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared to 26% of businesses in 2010. Only a quarter of the businesses asked have taken steps to tackle it.

One of the main ways you can manage presenteeism is to identify the cause of any disengagement. Perhaps the employee needs time off to recharge their batteries, a new role to spark enthusiasm, or support through a wellbeing programme. It’s especially important to emphasise that being absent because of ill health will not affect their standing at work.

Spot the early signs of presenteeism – and avoid burnout

“Presenteeism is a growing problem. Employees feel the need to be at their desks constantly: coming in earlier, leaving late, and working through lunch,” said Danny Brooks, founder and CEO of VHR Technical Recruitment.

“It’s easy to spot. Look for anyone who makes a point of coming in early and leaving late, anyone who’s always taking on extra work, and anyone who prioritises work over their own wellbeing.

“In the short-term, it might lead to some increased productivity, and going the extra mile is always something to be encouraged. But in the long-term, it can lead to increased stress or even burnout. It’s well documented that you need regular breaks to stay focused and that staying at your desk all day will actually do more harm than good.”

Brooks has firsthand experience of presenteeism – he’s seen the problem emerging in his own office.

“Many of our clients and candidates are international, so occasionally we have employees work longer hours to make sure a contract gets filled,” he explained.

“But sometimes it simply isn’t necessary. Sitting at your desk and staring at a screen doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Having a break can refresh your ideas. Realising there’s nothing more you can get done that day will mean you work better tomorrow.”

Be an advocate for a healthy work-life balance

Presenteeism - Danny Brooks
Brooks encourage staff to take more breaks to prevent.

To help combat presenteeism, Brooks tries to ensure his staff have a good work-life balance.

“We encourage staff to take more breaks, like going abroad,” Brooks said. “We have annual trips for the whole company. Last year we went to Porto, which was a great experience and a chance for people to see their colleagues out of their natural work environment.

“We also recently had a competition for any employees who exceed their targets for our previous financial years. The winners went on a company-paid-for trip to New York, which was lots of fun and a good way to build links between disparate teams.”

The company also has a “regimented” HR department on site to deal with any problems employees might be having at work. A wellbeing policy is in place to help staff combat both mental and physical illness worries.

“Our private healthcare plan allows access to physical therapies, as well as mental health services to combat depression,” Brooks said.

Give staff more control of their time at work

The company recently implemented a flexi-time initiative, allowing employees to start their work anytime between 8 am and 9 am.

“Our standard hours are 8:30-5:30, so employees can start at 8 and leave at 5, for example. On Fridays, they can potentially leave as early as 4. Unsurprisingly, we’ve seen a lot of staff take advantage of that!” Brooks said.

“It removes the pressure of being late. If you were aiming to start at 8:15 and you can’t get into the office until 9, there’s no problem and no punishment. We’re finding it makes the morning commute less of a race against time. Plus it boosts morale and means people have more energy at work.”

Brooks is also taking action to support the staff who work long hours on international deals.

“Different departments work different hours, and obviously the number of candidates we need to place has a huge impact on the amount of time needed to fulfil the contract.

“Our recruitment team tends to work 40-45 hours a week. But some of our employees would work well beyond what they were expected to do. Then they would come in tired the next day, with no new energy or enthusiasm,” he said.

“We find presenteeism damaging to team cohesion, so we’ve doubled our efforts to make sure our employees know that we work on problems together.”

Teamwork can help to eliminate presenteeism

Presenteeism - Steve Preston
Preston recommends taking steps to help staff with mental health.

Team camaraderie is also used to combat presenteeism at Bristol-based Heat Recruitment.

“When we originally looked at presenteeism, we thought home or more flexible working was the answer,” said managing director Steve Preston.

“But we saw problems with self-motivation emerge, and realised that having a close team unit in the office is the way to eliminate presenteeism. With high energy and a good team spirit, people stay engaged. If someone becomes disengaged, we can spot it quickly.”

Preston also uses “pro-active” measures to identify when someone comes to work “off colour”.

“We’ll point them to medical diagnosis websites and either send them home or advise them to go a health walk-in centre. But you have to treat each case individually.

“Recently, we had a member of staff who lost someone close to them. In cases like that, the worst advice would be to send them home to an empty room. We helped direct the member of staff to the therapy they needed.”

Encourage movement within the office

Preston believes that having a strong social network at work can help to tackle presenteeism. The company has created a “Wellbeing Wednesday” programme which informs staff of events in the city at the weekend, which groups of staff could attend together. It also provides advice on healthy eating and finances.

What percentage of your staff have left in the last year?





“It’s about keeping the stresses of their personal lives away from the office,” said Preston. “People are rubbish at asking for help, so you need to provide them with various measures to cope. We also have a weekly HR drop-in centre where staff can speak confidentially on any subject.”

Preston encourages staff to move away from their desks and work in breakout rooms, too.

“We discourage inactivity and encourage people to walk and talk if they are in discussions. It creates a more positive atmosphere.”

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