Presenteeism: Going To Work When You’re Not “All There”

Absenteeism in the workplace is straightforward: staying home sick when you’re unwell, stressed, or otherwise not in great shape. But what is presenteeism? This buzzword is on the rise and refers to employees who show up but aren’t fully engaged in the work day. Very few have the stamina to give 100% of their energy 100% of the time, but presenteeism generally refers to people who go to work despite physical and mental health concerns that detract significantly from their productivity. The exact definition of presenteeism, as well as how harmful it is to companies’ bottom lines, is still an issue of debate. But issues such as back pain, severe allergies, depression, and asthma are commonly cited examples of such productivity-detracting conditions.

Right now, a lot of the discussion about presenteeism centers on how much money it costs employers. But from an employee’s perspective, presenteeism can be part of a downward mental health spiral. Firstly, going to work when you’re sick enough to stay home may signal an unstable work environment, in which employees fear termination if they don’t show up. This type of environment is sure to be psychologically stressful in other ways as well. Secondly, it doesn’t feel good to be present at work but not engaged. While a few may relish getting paid for doing less work, most of us feel better about ourselves when we feel that we’ve accomplished something with our day: risen to a challenge, exceeded expectations, completed a goal we’ve been working toward.

As a result, presenteeism can create self esteem issues combined with guilt, an emotionally deflating combination that, too often, breeds more of the same disengagement. How to best address presenteeism will vary from workplace to work place: it may involve better access to counseling and other mental health services, policies that support recovery without threat of termination, and overall communication improvements between all levels of a company. What’s certain, though, is that addressing the underlying causes benefit not only the company’s productivity and profit, but employee’s mental and physical well-being: it’s in everyone’s best interest to tackle this phenomenon head-on.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • hewitt


    November 11th, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    I have been a presentee (if that’s the right word) quite a lot of times. I can’t help it because I need the money to pay for the bills. And no employer would like to support an employee in such situations because they can as well get ‘fit’ employees.So why should they bother with people who exhibit presenteeism regularly?That is if they do get to know of it.

  • sara


    November 11th, 2010 at 12:59 PM

    I think it’s totally selfish to go to work when you’re not at your best.

    A)Because you’re employed to work all the hours you’re there, not half because you don’t feel like it and want to spend the other half complaining.


    B)Your doing half a job impacts on your coworkers who have to pick up the slack. And don’t get me started about coming in if you have anything infectious like the flu or a virus! Stay home and give us all a break.

  • Helena


    November 11th, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    Heck I work with people who are like that every day. They turn up and that’s about all they do. I assumed it was laziness. Maybe I’ve been too quick to judge.

  • Norma Jean

    Norma Jean

    November 11th, 2010 at 2:13 PM

    Know what I have to say about all this presenteeism stuff? If you are not giving it your all then stay mhome. There are TONS of people who would like to be in your shoes right now and would give more than 100 percent if they were lucky enough to have your job!

  • Scott J.D.

    Scott J.D.

    November 11th, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    Speaking as a boss: when your only employee that you can really count on wants to call in sick, it’s a no brainer. I need you to come in when you’re not feeling well rather than not at all. Half a person is better than none.

    I hate it when my secretary calls in ill. She’s done it once this year already and once last year. I was lost without her and couldn’t figure out how to access my calendar for those two days. She keeps everything running like clockwork and it all goes haywire if she’s off. I can’t run a business like that.

  • rob


    November 11th, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    I go to work when I don’t feel 100% because if I don’t, I don’t get paid. It’s easy to say “oh stay home” if you don’t depend on every penny you earn to get by each month. That’s what people say that never have to worry about their finances. We’re on one salary, have kids to feed and every cent is accounted for.

  • H.L.T.


    November 11th, 2010 at 6:00 PM

    @ Scott J.D.: Let me guess. I bet you’d be exactly the kind of boss that doesn’t give that apparently indispensable person a raise or Christmas bonus nor sympathizes when she’s sick. I know your kind well. It’s superiors like you that guilt people into coming in when they aren’t well.

    Listen up. We get sick. It’s a fact of life. Instead of griping about it, be grateful to have such a valuable, reliable worker. I feel sorry for your secretary. You don’t appear to appreciate her at all. You NEED her to come in? No, you want her to come in. There’s a difference. What is needed is for her to be home in bed if she is sick.

  • Ron


    November 11th, 2010 at 10:13 PM

    This happens to me sometimes in college when I am too tired or in no mood to attend but compel myself to because I do not want to miss out on the lectures or do not want my attendance to suffer.

  • DINA


    November 12th, 2010 at 5:44 AM

    It really just puts me in a snit when I feel like there is someone that I work with who is not all there. My job performance depends on that of others, so why should I look bad just because someone else is not with it on that day? That makes me crazy.

  • DudeInHoodie


    November 12th, 2010 at 7:25 AM

    a lot also depends on the boss’ attitude and his own understanding of the problem.falling sick affects all humans but some bosses just don’t understand the same.maybe they’re not even ‘normal’ humans!

  • Pauline


    November 12th, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    So now bosses complain when we struggle in even when we’re hurting? What a joke this presenteeism is! They should be happy we do and don’t leave them shorthanded. The first time I come in sick and hear my boss say I’m not giving 100% will be the last time I do. I’d hand in my resignation and find a boss that was more concerned about my welfare and appreciated my dedication than whined about my lesser productivity on a day when I’m ill.

  • Lorraine


    November 12th, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    Scott J.D., your comment bugs me so much because I’m like her and have a boss like you. I call in sick once in a blue moon and when I do, it’s because I literally can’t function enough to pass the day at my desk. All I get is grief when I get back.

    You need to get her an assistant that can fill in if that happens. A two hours a day, twice a week, part timer won’t break the bank. Or learn how to do the very basics like opening your calendar yourself. And hey, if you’re too miserly to show appreciation with a raise or bonus, you could at least say thanks occasionally. It won’t kill you. Mine never does.

  • WT


    November 12th, 2010 at 11:06 AM

    Thank you for giving attention to this often-ignored topic. I have been a victim of conditions wherein i am compelled to go to the worlplace..Trust me guys,not being completely mentally present at the work place is worse even than being absent.Atleast no work is better than work with errors in it.

  • amy


    November 12th, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    You guys need to all keep your germs to yourselves! I work with a girl that comes in with lung infections every winter and coughs her guts up all day long. It makes me feel physically sick to have to share an office with her. She can’t help it because she’s prone to them but does she need to be making my working environment so unpleasant? I’m not exactly 100% productive myself when I’m around that.

  • Lisa


    November 12th, 2010 at 12:47 PM

    Who takes the chance of being off sick in this economy, amy? It will inevitably count against you when your employer starts looking for staff cuts. Unless I have a broken bone, I’ll be going in because I don’t want to be top of the list because of a poor sickness record. You catching my germs would be the least of my worries.

  • Avril


    November 16th, 2010 at 11:28 AM

    Scott: Once this year already? What do you mean already? It’s halfway through November LOL. Think yourself lucky she’s only done it once all year. I have co-workers that call in as soon as they have sick time built up when there’s nothing wrong with them and they don’t bat an eyelid over doing that. Thank heaven I have a boss who is nothing like you.

  • Craig H.

    Craig H.

    November 16th, 2010 at 12:29 PM

    She shoots, she scores!!! :)

    Lisa, you are right on the money there. Employers want it both ways and that’s not possible. When staff stay off for their own health and to prevent their colleagues from getting sick that shouldn’t be a black mark against them. Nothing will change until that changes, amy.

    Lisa is being honest, and smart. Sickness absence is one of the first areas they scrutinize.

  • Stu


    November 16th, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    Are they under 30 Helena? Then yes, it’s probably laziness if you ask me. If this generation works any less, they will come to a standstill. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve worked for almost 30 years and would be ashamed to put in an average day like youngsters do now and call it working. It’s like they think employers owe them a paycheck.

  • Callum


    November 17th, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    Presenteeism is the most ungrateful and insensitive management idea I’ve read in years. I thought this was going to be about the passengers who come to work and act as if their work interrupted their sleep, not staff who are conscientious enough to at least try when they are poorly. I’m disturbed by this trend.

  • Dale


    November 17th, 2010 at 5:48 PM

    amy, with regards to your repeatedly sick coworker. As I see it you have one course of action. Complain to either HR or your boss, amy. I would. That has to be a violation of Health and Safety regulations when it happens on a regular basis like that.

  • Ann


    November 17th, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    Gee, how nice it must be to live in a fantasy world. Has it occurred to you that she probably can’t AFFORD to be off work? Nobody likes to go to work when they are sick. We would all love nothing more than curling up in bed or on the couch and doing what we please, but some of us don’t have the luxury of being able to afford losing a day’s pay or whatever. Try living in the real world!

  • Fatima


    November 18th, 2010 at 1:45 PM

    You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t as far as I can tell. Go in and get reported to HR by mean spirited coworkers, or stay off and risk your job security further down the line. Presenteeism sounds like a phrase bosses made up to justify getting rid of staff and handing out poor appraisal ratings (saves them giving you a raise if you don’t get a good one you see.)

  • Aimee


    November 19th, 2010 at 7:09 PM

    Bosses demand that we be loyal to them, their product line and to their customers. Where in this presenteeism is there one ounce of loyalty to us, their employees?

  • Danny


    February 1st, 2011 at 5:13 AM

    I’m a regular presentee, I have been at both school and work for quite some time. Sick or not, just tough it out. Be as productive as you possibly can and use some willpower. If you infect anybody, yes, you’ll get griped at and feel kind of guilty, but if you keep clean and keep your hands away from trigger areas such as your face, it’s pretty hard to do. Presenteeism is a problem because when people are sick, they’re weaker. Trust me, I can sympathize. Unfortunately, this economy forces us to ignore our bad health and report in diligently. If you’re not making the most of it, somebody’s going to notice and it will bite you in the butt just as badly if not worse in comparison to just calling out sick. If I go to a restaurant and notice a worker’s not feeling their best, I don’t get angry, I’m just grateful for their dedication. Unless they’re not as careful in their effort to not contaminate their environment as they should be, of course. Bottom line, yes, you’re sick and yes, it’s going to take a lot out of you, but if you want your paycheck, unless you have a VERY cushy job, then dagnabit, you’re just gonna have to suck it up and do your best.

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