Absenteeism versus Presenteeism: Out of Work or… Out of Work?

Improve employee attendance

…Another regular morning in a small consulting company. A meeting with a prospective client is upcoming in a couple of hours. The secretary answers a call – it’s from Matt, the consultant who is supposed to run the presentation.

But he’s just called in sick.

The boss is livid: it’s the eighth time in the last three months! He has to postpone everything and run the presentation himself – because the company is really small and there’s nobody to cover Matt. What’s next? Fire Matt because of his health issues?

This is relatable to any manager, and that’s why absenteeism has historically been considered to be the hardest time management problem. No wonder that a significant effort has been targeted to fighting it.

How One Invites Another

Frequent unscheduled absences, last-minute calling-in sick or not calling at all, leaving too early – absenteeism in all its forms is the main source of chaos in team management. It makes teams capacity unpredictable, impairs morale and discipline, and leads to excessive consumption of time and resources.

The more an employee is present, the better – that has always been the common assumption. To put this idea into action, managers have been introducing various measures for reducing absences: from incentivizing employees for being present to firing them for being absent too often.

All this has led to presenteeism, a situation when an employee turns up for work while not being able to perform it properly – due to sickness, child or elder care issues, or any not work-related matters that require their urgent attention.

People come to work in fear of being fired, in order to appear committed, because they realize that nobody can cover them, or just because they are not sure if it’s okay to be absent in their specific case. The truth is, however, that they are unable to perform properly – or at all.

And, according to studies, the results are even more disruptive.

Employees subject to presenteeism problems tend to accumulate tiredness, get demotivated, and eventually burn out. To make it worse, many feel guilty when taking a time-off! This alone may prove that stigmatizing absences is an unhealthy practice.

Emotional problems aside, severe health issues can appear or intensify due to constant fatigue, stress and anxiety.

For companies, this means dramatic increase of indirect costs. First, productivity losses due to presenteeism are not negligible. In the US, they cost $1,685 per employee annually in average. Second, health issues intensified by not taking time-off when necessary lead to longer sick leaves and costs related to them.

As we see, the two problems turn out to be closely connected with each other: both are results of a poor attendance management policy. In the long-term perspective, both of them lead to similar problems: productivity decrease, unpredictable team capacity, and difficulties with planning and forecasting.

The solution has to be a complex approach to employees’ attendance.

Strategies for Reducing Attendance Problems

So, what can be done to eliminate – or at least reduce – the attendance problem?

First, build up a clear absence management policy. It should define the procedure of taking time off due to illnesses, family issues, not work-related urgent matters, etc. Often, employees choose not to take time off – mostly for minor reasons – because the procedure is not well-defined enough. So make sure to cover that gap.

Then, inform your employees on the absence management policy. Make sure that everyone on the team can easily access the employee handbook and clearly understands the policy. Give clear guidance on what is expected from employees – for example, when they are supposed to be not present at work and when it’s okay to stay home.

If remote work is not introduced in your company yet, consider offering it. If their job allows that, the workers will be able to work comfortably from home in such cases as common cold or headache. There will also be less germs in the office. It’s a true win-win situation.

On a related note, how do you request and approve time off in your company? Submitting requests on paper, via phone calls or emails is not really handy. Instead, try using automated leave management systems.

They simplify leave requesting and approving procedure, allow to inform colleagues about last-minute absence requests and schedule changes, and automatically calculate time-off and sick time balances.

And, the last but not the least. Uneven workload can also be the culprit of attendance issues. So make sure that workload is distributed correctly on your team: there are no employees who have too few work assignments, and nobody on your team is facing work overload problems.


Seemingly antagonistic, presenteeism and absenteeism are both the consequences of a poor absence management policy.

Good news is that both problems can be defeated with a single action. You will need to review the attendance policy in your company, adapting it to your particular needs. If you are more interested in great work results than physical presence in the office, remote work may help.

If a particular job requires presence at work, consider offering flexible hours or part-time work to your workers who struggle to balance work and other commitments.

To sum up in three words: build a clear process, clarify it to your employees, and automate it. This will help you streamline absence management and develop a healthy work-life balance attitude on the team.

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