The Costs of ‘Presenteeism’

As the “sick season” of workplace health arrives — colds, flu, etc. — we wanted to explore a common concern in workplace wellness: Presenteeism.

Presenteeism, “or working while sick can cause productivity loss, poor health, exhaustion and workplace epidemics. While the contrasting subject of absenteeism has historically received extensive attention in the management sciences, presenteeism has only recently been studied,” according to Wikipedia.

Of course, it can be frustrating to sit in a meeting — in a closed conference room or at the office kitchenette — with a well-meaning colleague who is sneezing and stuffy and, probably, ought to be at home. But it’s also costly to a business bottom line.

A Canadian study looked at the issue. Titled “Illness related wage and productivity losses: Valuing ‘presenteeism,’” the report states: “One source of productivity loss due to illness is the reduced “quantity” or “quality” of labor input while working, often referred to as presenteeism. Illness-related presenteeism has been found to be potentially more costly than absenteeism.”

How much? Generating exact measurements can be a challenge. However, a 2012 Workforce post on tracking the cost states: “Poor worker health and related productivity losses cost U.S. employers $576 billion annually, including workers compensation, disability and group health program expenses”

A piece titled “How ‘Presenteeism’ Costs Hundreds of Billions” in D Magazine states: “Estimates vary, but some suggest that presenteeism accounts for 75 percent of productivity loss, while absenteeism represents the balance. They comprise what are called “indirect medical costs.” The two reflect an iceberg effect because absenteeism is visible, but far less prevalent than presenteeism. The combined cost to the U.S. economy is $344 billion annually.”

It continues: “Depending upon the industry, presenteeism can account for up to 60 percent of a company’s direct and indirect health costs, when factoring in productivity. Poor health generally costs the U.S. economy more than a half trillion dollars annually.”

Further, a recent report from Australia found that “being sick and dragging yourself into work to sit at a desk and stare at the phone or computer could be contributing to a multi-billion dollar cost to the economy.”

The study “shows that people at work while sick are costing the Australian economy more than $34 billion a year in lost productivity.”

Indeed, the conclusion from the study “An effort to assess the relation between productivity loss costs and presenteeism at work” in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics  seems pertinent: “Presenteeism is a costly problem but more research is needed to reveal the connections between presenteeism and a company’s turnover, personnel costs and profit.”