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Striking a balance between absenteeism and presenteeism

Academic research contains advice for practitioners on managing absence and presenteeism

HR should strive to achieve a middle ground between cultures of absenteeism and presenteeism, according to Mariella Miraglia, PhD lecturer in organisational behaviour at UEA’s Norwich Business School.

“The challenge for HR is to seek a balance between absenteeism and presenteeism,” she told HR magazine. “It’s about prioritising employee wellbeing and understanding when [presenteeism] can be encouraged because of its positive impact on the individual, and when it should be avoided.”

Miraglia suggested that presenteeism is not always the problem that businesses might assume.

“It can represent a ‘sustainable’ choice for certain employees, such as those suffering from long-term diseases or chronic illness where the illness is neither debilitating nor contagious,” she said. “In these cases presenteeism could be self-affirming and facilitate gradual return to work.”

Miraglia has developed an analytical model to identify the most significant causes of presenteeism and absenteeism. Job demands such as workload, understaffing, overtime, and time pressure, along with difficulty of finding cover and personal financial difficulties were found to be key reasons why people might not take a day off. Conflict between work and family, and vice versa, and being exposed to harassment, abuse, and discrimination at work were also found to be related to presenteeism.

Miraglia said that carefully planned policies could help employers to control absenteeism and presenteeism.

“Since presenteeism is more predictable than absenteeism HR directors may want to act directly on working while ill,” she said. “As presenteeism stems from ill health HR departments can encourage employees’ engagement in health management programmes for sickness prevention.”

She added: “HR directors may want to carefully control absence policies, such as strict trigger points for disciplinary action, limited paid sick leave, or fewer absence days allowed without a medical certificate. Strict absenteeism policies can effectively reduce absence, but at the cost of increased presenteeism.”

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for Group Risk Development, agreed that employees who have chronic health issues need a sustainable action plan. “They may need to come in from time to time, possibly with reduced hours or reduced duties. They could work from home,” she said.

“If someone really is not well enough to come into work productivity could be reduced, and they could pose a risk to the business rather than a benefit.”