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Is Presenteeism Dead?

The days employees used to drag themselves to work, even when they were sick, seem to be over

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Employees used to drag themselves into work despite feeling ill. Glassy-eyed and feverish, they’d take Dayquil or Comtrex to suppress symptoms and slog through the day.

Called “presenteeism” as opposed to “absenteeism,” the scenario means coming into work no matter what, whether illness, injury or family crisis has occurred. 

It appears that presenteeism is as dead as dial-up internet. 

Few employees will endanger health and sanity to haul themselves into work. Most employers don’t want them to. Employees are taking more time off for personal reasons, caring for relatives and mental health.

So, what flipped the switch?

John R. Halleron, advanced certified senior business adviser with the Small Business Development Center in Oswego, said it’s partly a generational shift, as people in the millennial and generation Z age range don’t want to work a job they hate for 45 years and then finally have a life.

“The boomers are starting to realize maybe we were wrong,” Halleron said. “I’m a boomer. I remember those days of going to work sick. If you weren’t there, you were in trouble. It’s no longer ‘work ‘til you drop’ but more about being productive and happy.”

It appears that employers have learned that when employees clock in while sick, they’re exposing the workplace to germs that will run amok through the place.

Having one employee miss a few days is better than the entire place slowing down for a week as an illness spreads.

Halleron also thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped end the stigma associated with missing work for illness and encouraged workers to better care for themselves, including mental health.

“People understand that their health is important and to keep people productive, you need to give them the opportunity to chill and not burn out,” Halleron said.

Danielle Dexter, senior HR consultant with HR One Consulting in Auburn and Syracuse, said that changes in laws have helped decrease presenteeism.

“They’ve helped give the option for employees to have the time available to use if they need it,” she said.

In some industries, the option of working at home has also enabled employees to isolate themselves during an illness while still getting work done. Working from home represents another area in which COVID-19 has change the working world. With increased IT awareness and security, many companies have permitted alternative working spaces for employees.

“Work-from-home wasn’t designed for that, but it has helped with work/life balance and helping people who are sick stay productive if they’re able to,” Dexter said.

Current sick leave law requires employers to protect their employee’s position with a paid and unpaid sick leave with the amount dependent upon the size of the company.

“Before, employees were more inclined somewhat out of loyalty to show up,” said Kathy Barany, owner of Strategic Management Solutions in Syracuse. “They also wanted to get the job done. “Paid sick leave and family leave comes with a job guarantee. The employer can’t discriminate or fire you. Paid sick leave is for employee sickness and paid family leave is to care for family members and other qualifying reasons.”

These legal shifts have helped change a long-ingrained mindset of attendance no matter what. Of course, on a small scale, a few employers hold it against employees when they take time off, but Barany said that these are rare.

The areas in which she still sees employees voluntarily exhibiting presenteeism include the industries in which workers tend to be more vested, such as medicine and the arts. Consultants and gig workers are also more likely to exhibit presenteeism.

As a consultant, Barany understands this perspective.

“No one pays me when I’m sick,” she said. “I have no PTO. I’m motivated by my own success. I use Uber every now and then and every time, I talk with the driver to tell me why he does this. Every single case, it’s flexibility. They work when they want to work and don’t work when they don’t want. It depends on the type of gig and whatever contract they have with their client.”

Barany encourages employers to base employees’ output not on hours in the chair but on production standards appropriate for the industry.

“Many employers are not as willing to step up to the plate and manage their employees,” she said. “I can write all the policies in the world, but until they step up and manage, it won’t help.”

She also noted that employers are becoming more aware of the need to send sick employees home if they’re still on the presenteeism bandwagon.

“If it could affect other employees, they have a legal right to do that under OSHA,” Barany said. “If the employee doesn’t have sick time left, they still need to go.”