Some people take a lot of pride in their attendance record at work. And why not? On the one hand, if you enjoy your work, you might want to spend as much time as possible doing it. A little sickness certainly doesn’t dissuade everyone; we all likely know that colleague who’s hell-bent on turning up to work no matter what malaise is crippling them. On the other hand, taking too much time off doesn’t reflect well on you as an employee. In fact, absenteeism is one of the most explicit and reliable measures for organisations and researchers to gauge employees’ job satisfaction, job performance, organisational commitment, motivation, work relationships, morale, and many other significant factors.
Clearly, then, absenteeism is a challenge for organisations. But presenteeism – the practice of staying at work longer than usual or when you are ill – is also an important issue. Think back to our attendance-proud colleague; by turning up to work unwell, they risk exacerbating their own or others’ physical or mental wellbeing. Indeed, presenteeism is a common problem that’s only getting worse, with the number of sick days taken by UK workers having almost halved since 1993.
And now, presenteeism has seen an even greater surge thanks to our rapid shift to remote working. A recent survey by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation revealed that 79% of people believe this current period of remote working has led to a new, upgraded problem dubbed ‘e-presenteeism’, where there is even more pressure to be available since we are working from home. The research confirmed that since mid-2020, remote workers have been clocking an extra 28 hours per month, equalling nearly four days’ additional work. As may be expected, this new wave of e-presenteeism has also been strongly linked to higher stress, anxiety and burnout.
So why do we feel more obliged to appear online, ready to jump on a virtual meeting late in the evenings? And why is there even more pressure to work normally if we’re ill and struggling? The most consistent reason relates to the fact that many people have struggled to differentiate between home and work since both domains have been blended together. For instance, the sense of workday closure someone may have felt upon walking out the door of their office is no longer there; at home, many of us are forced to spend our recreational time and work time in the same space. People are simply finding it more difficult to switch off after the workday is over. Furthermore, with more flexible working being encouraged alongside remote working, the clock striking 5pm may not necessarily mean that it’s time we hang up our boots for the evening.
E-presenteeism is still a new phenomenon, and luckily there are ways in which we can combat it. That said, these may be dependent on how far the expectancy of presenteeism is rooted. If it’s only occurring at an individual level (for example, the pressure is of your own accord), the first step is to recognise and acknowledge it. Taking a few short breaks throughout the day is conducive to our productivity, motivation and satisfaction, so it may help to explicitly plan these into our schedule. Think of these as replicating those natural breaks we had in the office, be they dropping by a colleague’s desk for a quick, informal conversation or heading to prepare a coffee in the canteen. And when your workday is over, perhaps take your work phone out of your pocket and leave it in another room (at least for a while!). Essentially, being more committed to ‘going offline’ at times may prove beneficial.
However, if there is an expectation of e-presenteeism that runs beyond the individual level – that is, it is expected of you by a leader, manager or by the organisation itself – this may be more difficult to challenge. Many organisations are still struggling with the shift to remote working, and it may be the case that routines and policies haven’t been properly implemented. If so, perhaps raising the issue with leaders, managers and colleagues is a necessary step to shed light on the dangers and unsustainability of e-presenteeism.