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Presenteeism: If You Go to Work Sick, Are You Doing Anyone Any Favors?

July 07, 2015

If you go to work when you’re sick, and thus not able to fulfill your duties, this is known as presenteeism. People who are sick often feel compelled to go to work so that others won’t perceive them in a negative way and this is particularly true of those with invisible disabilities like mental illness. People often feel that they will be considered “weak” for taking time off for a mental health-related issue such as anxiety or depression. A large part of this is the existing stigma around mental illness in the workplace where many already assume that those with a mental illness can’t be effective, equal employees. Taking time off, then, makes employees worry that this skewed perception will be even further engrained. Presenteeism is seen by many as a bigger problem in workplaces than absenteeism.


What’s the Problem with Presenteeism?

Some experts think that the costs in lost productivity from presenteeism are actually three times higher than the costs for absenteeism. According to a National Post article, David Gallson, associate national executive director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, said that, “The costs [of presenteeism] for an employer are often as much or more than for all its other health plan benefits combined.”

Presenteeism seems to be a problem particularly in the public sector but its effect can be felt in any company.

The problem with presenteeism is two-fold. One, people who go to work when not well tend not to be able to keep up with work, fall behind, and produce more errors. The quality of their work declines. But two, the issue is that those who go to work sick aren’t getting the rest and treatment they need to get better. Anxiety, for example, may increase at work each day the person forces him or herself to be there even though he or she are suffering.

According to the National Post article, ‘Presenteeism’ worse than absenteeism? Thousands of public servants have mental health issues, expert says, some telltale signs of presenteeism include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Indecisiveness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Trouble getting along with co-workers

Avoiding Mental Health-Related Presenteeism

While it’s difficult to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness in the workplace, the Mental Health Commission of Canada has come up with 13 factors that define a “psychologically healthy workplace.” These factors, thought to be able to reduce presenteeism, are:

  • Respectful organizational culture
  • Psychological and social support available
  • Clear leadership and lines of authority
  • Value for civility
  • Consideration for physical and psychological demands of the jobdownload (1)
  • Opportunities for growth and development
  • Recognition and reward for a job well done
  • Involvement and influence encouraged
  • Effectively managing workloads
  • Employees are engaged and connected
  • Work-life balance seen as important
  • Policies for psychological protection against retaliation, bullying and harassment.
  • Policies for physical safety recognize that there may be a psychological component

To goal of these 13 points is to create a safe working environment for all employees and create a culture of empathy, not judgement, to those who are sick – with any illness, including mental illness.


“This article was written by award-winning mental health writer and speaker, Natasha Tracy.”

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