The new abnormal: revisiting workplace presenteeism during covid-19
As the second quarter of 2022 beckons, things appear to be fast returning to normal and everyone is gradually settling back into work. Organizations in Canada are fast embracing the new normal and adopting more flexible workplace practices. In the new normal, employee health concerns have remained a major subject at management meetings.
Yet, things aren’t quite so normal. The now not-so-new sheriff in town is COVID-19, which has taken the world by storm and surpassed other health conditions that have plagued the work environment and workplace performance over the years, such as stress, heart-related ailments, sleep problems, allergies, body pain and depressive mood (McGregor et al., 2018). COVID quickly gained top-of-mind status with most employees who, by the nature of their employment, must report physically to work.
Now into its third year as a significant health concern, COVID-19 has affected the world of work perhaps more than any other development in the modern era (Pieh et al., 2021). Its highly contagious nature, along with its tendency to periodically mutate into even more contagious variants, continually stretches the limits of modern medicine as the world struggles to find a solution. The ceaseless pressure to maintain productivity and profitability as the world begins to embrace the new normal presents new challenges with consequences that extend beyond the workplace.
Workplace absenteeism and presenteeism
The life of the modern-day business manager is not an easy one. They have a lot to contend with. While absenteeism remains a common disruptor to workplace activity, its parallel component, presenteeism, reintroduces itself as a clear and present danger for all organizations – particularly in the wake of COVID-19. Whilst absenteeism refers to a worker’s absence from work due to illness (either personally or as a caretaker for a sick dependent), presenteeism describes a situation where a legitimately ill person continues to physically come to the workplace (Howard et al., 2012). Where such an illness is as infectious as COVID-19, the consequences are not only monumental but extend beyond the workplace and assume a societal challenge of paradigmatic proportion.
Presenteeism during COVID-19
The costs and risk factors associated with workers coming into work while sick with COVID-19 are an enormous and relatively novel situation that organizations are forced to cope with. Where health conditions are non-contagious, sickness presenteeism has been observed to have some benefits to ailing staff, as the work environment offers structure, builds self-esteem and provides opportunities for social engagement and support (Kinman & Grant, 2022). Nonetheless, there is evidence that suggests that working while ill can delay, rather than expedite, the process of recovery, thus increasing the risk of future health problems and sickness absence (Skagen, 2016; Kinman & Grant, 2022).
Inherent factors that encourage presenteeism
Unfortunately, the pressures associated with having to turn up at work, especially in non-remote, in-person work sectors like retail, construction and hospitality, compel workers to take difficult decisions and go to work despite their ill health. They may also face the risk of lost hourly wages or even unemployment if they stay home sick.
“Unhealthy” workplace culture can also be a factor. Employees may be gaslighted into self-doubt and question the seriousness of their own conditions because they are reluctant to let down their managers and colleagues. This may be a particular concern in situations where staffing levels are low or organizations are faced with other challenges that threaten their survival (Kinman, 2019). Workers may fear that their managers and colleagues do not consider them sufficiently unwell to necessitate time off from work if their symptoms are mild. This further constrains workers to put on a brave face and face the challenge of working during illness, unwittingly spreading it to other colleagues. The unfortunate long-term consequences, beyond prevailing a contagion that could otherwise be averted, includes reports that some people have continued to experience symptoms such as chronic fatigue, weakness, low productivity and cognitive difficulties several months later (Wise, 2020).
Summary, reflections and further research direction
The simple solution to stalling workplace presenteeism would be to encourage sick employees to stay at home and call in sick when they observe that they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, however mild (Pieh et al., 2021). Unfortunately, in the real world, things are never quite so simple. Therefore, sacrifices have to be made by both employees, who should conscientiously concede to reduced income during their periods of ill health, and managers, who should consider introducing half-pay conditions for workers performing in-person roles whose absenteeism is demonstrably a result of COVID-19-related illness. This demonstrates a sense of fairness to the affected employee and is a gesture of encouragement to avert the spread of the disease.
Workplace presenteeism has a negative impact on employees, their co-workers and the community. It can exacerbate health problems and increase long-term sickness absence for the worker, increase accidents and injuries for the worker and co-workers, and transmit contagious illness to the community in which the workplace is embedded (Kinman, 2019)
Tade Owodunni is a doctoral student in Business Administration at Royal Roads University, a Nigerian-trained lawyer, corporate governance practitioner and certified compliance and ethics professional. He emerged as the best graduating student (Nigeria) from his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program at Business School Netherlands in 2018. Tade’s research interests include corporate governance themes, small business growth and career development subjects.
Howard, K. J., Howard, J. T., & Smyth, A. F. (2012). The problem of absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace. In Handbook of occupational health and wellness (pp. 151-179). Springer, Boston, MA.
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