Presenteeism and Its Risks In The Workplace

Written by Benjamin Lee for iqDynamics

Presenteeism; a hidden killer of productivity


Singaporeans are renowned for their solid work ethic in which we place our jobs and responsibilities above everything else. In fact, a recent study conducted by Channel News Asia has shown that Singaporeans work a stunning 45.6 hours per week, coming in just shy of Hong Kong’s 50.6 hours.


While being dedicated to the job and company is all well and good, the stresses of modern day living coupled with an unhealthy lifestyle is taking a toll on the health and well-being of many employees.


Rather unfortunately, most Singaporeans are guilty of exhibiting the so-called “Iron man” mentality i.e. putting on a strong front at the office despite feeling ill. In some organizations, some individuals even take pride in being ill and make oftentimes make a big show of being sick while actually not getting any work done.


Such behaviour is actually symptomatic of a much larger problem that exists within the psyche of both employers and employees alike. Having sat down with several respondents, we break down the culture of presenteeism.


One of our interviewees who preferred to remain anonymous stated that she often felt guilty taking a day off to rest whenever she felt unwell citing the additional work that would be incurred onto her colleagues. With a changing economy and a more optimized workforce, employees are now dealing with a larger scope of responsibilities and a heavier workload.


Consequently, sick employees prefer to continue working as a sign of solidarity for their colleagues. In other cases, managers and supervisors have been known to subtly “discourage” their employees from taking sick leave with behaviours from subtle hints to outright threats.


In fact, one employee named Marie reported that her CEO famously thundered that “managers should never be allowed to take sick leaves as they were not paid to be sick.” In Marie’s organization; employees who took sick leave would be ridiculed as being “weak” or simply “lazy”.  All of this in turn created a culture where working through sickness was worn as a badge of honor and a sign of dedication.


As comical as it may seem, this is in fact an extremely real problem in many workplaces in Asia. Take the example, where one manager named Chen told us of how he would be repeatedly hounded by his superior whenever he took a sick day off. From angry phone calls to sarcastic text messages sent to the office Whatsapp group, such unprofessional behaviour often meant that sick employees chose to continue working instead of getting some much-needed rest.


A study conducted by the Duke-NUS Medical School has discovered that presenteeism has the potential to cost employees $12.1 billion a year. From generating unhappiness and even encouraging the spread of illness, presenteeism without a doubt is a serious problem in the workplace.


Marie has stated that she often finds herself struggling with insomnia and is often moody and unhappy at home and at work. Chen on the other hand suffers from hypertension and was warned to cut down on his stress levels.


Both Chen and Marie have indicated that they were actively looking for jobs in other organizations. Despite being relatively well-remunerated, the strains put upon them were sufficient to  convince them to search for greener pastures elsewhere.


Change starts from the top


In order to enact change, employers first need to recognize the importance of having healthy and happy employees. It should be stated that working through illness is not a sign of dedication and should be recognized as such.


Instead, employers and HR professionals alike need to take steps to safeguard the well-being of their employees. These can range from making sick leave mandatory to stamping out the “Iron man” mentality by recognizing the need for employees to rest and recover.


While some may argue that such a “lenient” approach encourages absenteeism, it should also be of note that absenteeism is largely caused by stressed out, disengaged employees who are burnt out; all of which are symptomatic of a unhealthy and even toxic workplace.


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