Presenteeism, or lack of productive engagement at work is prevalent at huge cost to both the public and private sectors. Research shows how well-being and resilience interventions can support sustained employee engagement resulting in increased productivity and organisational success.

Think for a moment about how engaged we really are at work – you look around your workplace and you see everyone, but is anybody really there?

If we believe the wealth of recent research on employee engagement the answer is probably that only about 3 out of 10 people really are ‘there’ and are fully engaged at work. The chances are that of 7 who remain, 2 are actively disengaged, creating negativity and potentially undermining the organisation. The other 5 maybe spending time ruminating about the sad state of the world or plodding along daydreaming rather than being positively focussed on the tasks, challenges and opportunities at hand. These alarming figures mean that 70% of employees may not be as productive as they could!

Now, don’t forget that this is about the people who are actually at work. The costs of absenteeism through work related stress and general ill-health are widely known and addressed in HR policies and strategies. But absenteeism is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lost productivity.

What we are looking at here is presenteeism which is 1.5 times more prevalent than absenteeism. Presenteeism is the lack of active engagement by employees at work though ill-health; mental stress such as work related worry, anxiety, conflict, lack of control or fear of job loss; personal issues and concerns; boredom, lack of purpose, goal focus or effort.

But presenteeism is not just about people worrying about their problems or spending too much time on Facebook. Many employees appear fully engaged and they have enormous loyalty to their organisations, staff and customers. They are passionate about their work and may consistently put in extra hours, even when they are sick and really need to rest. Some people genuinely believe they are indispensable and that the organisation cannot function without them. This can all have serious impact upon the individuals’ mental and physical health, their family and social relationships and their overall quality of life.

Above is an example of ‘unstable’ engagement. It takes place in the absence of well-being and results in eventual burnout, serious underperformance, increased presenteeism and high turnover. So to tackle presenteeism organisations need to focus on how to develop sustainable ongoing engagement. Research shows this only takes place when there is an equal focus on engagement and employee well-being.

A 2008 Towers Perrin study of over 650,000 employees has shown that the key driver for employee engagement is the belief that senior management sincerely care about the well-being of their employees. The good news is that there are increasing numbers of success stories where employees working lives have been transformed in both the public and private sectors. From local councils to multi-national corporations,  organisations are benefiting from significant increases in civic pride, productivity, performance, profitability, quality of service delivery and customer or client satisfaction.

Championed from the top, important work is being done to raise awareness of well-being amongst managers to shake off the ‘soft and fluffy image’ and demonstrate the evidence-base. Practical positive psychology based interventions such as coaching are being used to increase well-being and build resilience in employees so they can focus on their strengths and purpose and become better able to deal with the inevitable change and challenges work and life bring. These are being implemented alongside lots of other measures that have been proven to increase engagement, such as effective communication and flexible working.

The results are impressive. Overall return on investment in terms of reduced absence and productivity is cited as 6:1. World-class organisations have a ratio of 8 engaged to every 1 disengaged employee. But the ratio for average organisations remains at 1.5 engaged for every 1 disengaged, so there is still a long way to go.

The recent drives to modernise Government despite the budget and job losses in the public service and the proactive approach of Australia’s most successful companies show that testing economic and political times are not an excuse to stop investing in employee engagement and well-being initiatives. It is quite the contrary, because in periods of upheaval and crisis presenteeism still has to be tackled and resilient and motivated workforces are needed more than ever.

But remember, employee engagement and well-being strategies are not just focused on resolving or preventing problems. They are also about looking after the people who are present and who are doing fine, helping them to do even better – to strive towards their goals and to flourish both professionally and personally. We just need a lot more of them!


Image: Ephemera Inc. Retro Humour, Half Moon Bay UK

McLeod, D. (2009). Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance Through Employee Engagement

Robertsoncooper (2009). UK Perspectives on Employee Engagement & Well- being 2009-10.

Towers Perrin (2009). Employee Well-being: Taking engagement and performance to the next level. Perspectives Series.

Towers Perrin (2008). Global Workforce Study (2007-2008)