Presenteeism and workplace productivity today

Since the Industrial Revolution and the great depression of the 1930s, work has continually evolved and adapted to the prevalent socio-economic milieus of different time points. Workers have, similarly, been structured to fit with prevailing working conditions. In recent years when sweeping socioeconomic changes, interactions, interconnectedness, and interdependence of nations have become integral to sustainable development, society tends to be currently witnessing a virtual disintegration of national territories and sovereignty, with the massive ascendancy of multinational companies (MNCs). Despite the pervasiveness of these trends, little attention has been accorded to the discourse on the nexus between workplace presenteeism and improved productivity in organisations.

Historically, the rise of presenteeism was a common phenomenon among organisations especially where employers have historically been expected to see long hours from their employees even when it is not quantifiably tied to increased productivity. However, the emergence of COVID-19 changed the dimension, perception, and attitude towards the execution of work. The pandemic led to a re-evaluation of work systems and norms and subsequently disentangled the old traditions that seemed to destroy work progress. In the ensuing new era of work, many organisations came to embrace flexible working hours, remote work, and shortened work weeks. Despite this, one entrenched feature of organisational culture that seems tough, and in some cases, undoable to eradicate, particularly in the Nigerian public sector, is persistent presenteeism.

Presenteeism refers to the practice of working more hours than is required by one’s contract of employment or continuing to work without regard to one’s health because of perceived job insecurity. It also implies executing a job below individual capacity due to illness or stress. Within the organisational framework, the role of a healthy and productive workforce in achieving general sustainability and economic prowess cannot be overemphasised. Despite the relative importance of a healthy workforce, available research evidence on the nexus between workplace health promotion programs and presenteeism revealed that programs and policies geared toward enhancing workers’ wellness are still at the rudimentary stage. Research has further implicated individual and organisational factors relating to tight deadlines and schedules, pressure from, managers, and economic demands by the family as some of the dominant factors responsible for the perpetual rate of presenteeism in organisations.

Although putting in an excessive effort by employees may seem to have positive effects by reducing the extra burden on colleagues and increasing productivity due to the constant availability of workers. However, this culture can, as well, generate both physical and online pressure, thereby making employees work even while they are neither physically nor mentally fit because of fear of job loss. Even though presenteeism tends to have become entrenched in most organisations a take-home point to note in the forgoing piece is that being physically present in an organisation does not translate to effective work productivity.

Improving workplace productivity cuts across the capacity building of employees, regular promotion, employee voices and involvement. When presenteeism is not handled carefully, it can lead to loss of productivity, wastage of resources, and, lastly, poor health and burnout of workers. In addressing the culture of presenteeism, work organisations and governments must have a deeper understanding of both the short and long-term risks of presenteeism. This may require the introduction of workers’ wellness programs, paid sick and family leave, work-life balance, better work relationships, and reduction in excessive workloads, time pressure, and restrictive absence policies.

In addition, continuous orientation, education, and enlightenment of workers on various ways of ameliorating work-life conflict will also help in curtailing the incessant rate of presenteeism. In view of the above discussion and recommendation, it is worth noting that organisations need to put in place appropriate measures to reduce the culture of presenteeism in the workplace to maximise workers’ productivity.

While developed countries are moving toward eradicating the culture of presenteeism in work organisations, evidence abounds that 69% of public health professionals in Enugu, Nigeria, for instance, experience burnout due to self-rated health and longer hours of work. Research on “Digital presenteeism in the Age of Covid-19” also revealed that, while Covid-19 might exacerbate digital presenteeism, an increasing digital footprint tracker of employee progress can also contribute to both physical and digital presenteeism. When workers recognise that their digital activities generate online footprints that can be tracked by their employers, they may perceive their inputs and activities as extremely visible and under scrutiny, and therefore, propel them to put in excessive effort – which has been found to contribute to greater burnout.

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