The Ticking Timebomb of Virtual Presenteeism

Michael Vermeersch

By: Michael Vermeersch
Accessibility Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft

It is just about a year ago when I gave my first talk about Mental Well-being in the Workplace. This was at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and with no Covid-19 insight, the experience was very different then. The audience was very real, and you could feel that the topic landed as the subject is still not common enough discussed. One clue could have been that no one was watching their phone and as every point landed you could see people finding that this too was true for them.

My starting point was a recent study then, commissioned by Microsoft, which found that 40 percent of people work outside of regular hours in a way that interferes with family time. This followed with the impact that this is having on our mental wellbeing on a personal level, the cost for employers, our government and on an overall UK economic level.

Not supporting mental well-being costs UK employers up to £42 billion per year. The biggest cost factor of that is presenteeism with up to £26 billion per year. For an employer, this amounts to a cost of £1560 per year, per employee.

I remember a particular statistic was that presenteeism costs employers 17-26 billion pounds per annum. Presenteeism is defined as showing up to work when one is ill, resulting in a loss of productivity and sometimes making an individual’s condition worse.

Rachel Suf from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says:

“Presenteeism is particularly common in organisations where a culture of long working hours is the norm and where operational demands take precedence over employee wellbeing. Also, in periods of job insecurity, people may be more likely to go into work when they are ill, rather than take a day off sick, for fear their commitment to their job will be doubted. It is this culture and these fears that need to be addressed to reduce presenteeism at work”.

Modern Workplace Technology can help embed a culture of mental well-being, create permission, provide the means to self-monitor, bake in awareness, provide tools to self help, create transparency and share a culture of inclusion.

That talk ended with how Modern Workplace Technology can help give us back control, unplug and still provide us the means to be productive. However perhaps even more important was that the adoption of said technology would help embark the employer on a route towards a culture of mental well-being and inclusion.

Fast forward to October 2020, where some of us have experienced roughly 6 months of working remotely. I am not going to dwell too much on that period where we had to learn to work differently and technology has been a great enabler for many of us. As and when we got this nailed, we even started having fun and connect with our peers using the same technology that continued our productivity even whilst from home.

But now… with new financial years starting together with the traditional after-summer-holiday sprint to make sure our financial quarterly targets are met, what I see and I am experiencing personally is very different…

We are seeing more communications and our boundaries are being eroded.

With the required technology at our fingertips and being seasoned homeworkers, we can be continuously logged on and respond quickly to just that little ask. The agility allows us to kick off a group chat at 22:00 or the weekend and with anyone online to quickly decide the next steps for this project. This in addition to just book a meeting before 9:00 or at lunch or around 18:00, because it looks like these were the only times that everyone was available. The people booking these styles of meetings already did so before the pandemic, so it is not yet clear whether introducing virtual commute-time will introduce more empathy. Already focus time is considered by some as ‘fair game’; a block of time that you can move around since clearly you have nothing else planned for that time.

Heroic productivity is through the roof and those who do not participate risk being left out of the decision making and are therefore not being seeing as part of the team.

Depending on your level of resilience both situations are a lose/lose. You either try to be part of the team, adding to the already extra hours you have been working or you do not participate, say why or just be absent.

Many organizations recognizing the extra pressures their workforce is facing are providing mental well-being sessions and the like. Slogans as “You never know what someone is going through, so be kind” or “It is OK not to be OK” are part of the “vaccinations” we are getting to help us cope.

The irony of ‘It is OK not being OK’ is that as soon as you are not ok you are being called upon it and you have to start covering.

We are not releasing pressure.

We are not reducing work or adding more help, so people have to continue to fail. The people who can reduce work or just do so or cannot do what they are supposed to do, divert the accountability and pressure to others. The remaining people have the impossible ‘choice’ to ultimately fail more visibly or reduce the self-accountability for outcomes.

Inevitably that means that the heaviest burden will fall on the people that care. These people are our greatest asset, and we are setting them up for burnout.

Was I right? We knew that presenteeism exists, and I know that prior and at the beginning of the pandemic there were people who felt that working from home is not really working from home. Yet the above was very real, but different… more like virtual presenteeism? Turns out that this expression is already there. It moves beyond presenteeism, as employees working from home during the pandemic are facing increased pressure to be available and are less able to switch off from work. Excess workloads and fear of redundancies does not help, but neither does the interconnectedness and virtual peers unknowingly “competing with you”, going the “extra mile” as obviously they are more committed. In places, management reminds employees to “be kind”, some have encouraged the one half a day, up to one full day “free” leave. A kind consideration, but Monday it all starts again. One could argue more so, as annual targets and similar expectations do not get adjusted.

“With virtual presenteeism, the problem is bigger, and the harm it can cause – like stress, anxiety, exhaustion and poor health – is even greater”.

The advice to set boundaries with or without the help of technology is everywhere. Employers put some focus on mental wellbeing and provide some guidance. Studies show meditation can fight burnout and stress during the workday.

Managers can help reduce the workload and risk to burnout employees are facing, via regular 1:1s focused on their well-being.

“When my manager asks me what I’m doing for myself, it demonstrates that she values me as a whole person and prioritizes wellness.”

We also see that managers can be key to help their team members prioritize. We learned that employees who receive prioritization support from their managers are 2.5 times more likely to maintain their productivity levels with work/life balance in comparison to those who do not receive prioritization support.

What is perhaps missing overall in this is clear and empowering leadership. Leadership that leads by example and takes accountability for this ticking timebomb. I can think of 3 ways that leadership can do this internally:

A. In a clear, unambiguous way reduce and reset expectations by taking away the pressure

  • for managers to encourage presenteeism and
  • employees to participate in, up to even drive “collaborative” presenteeism.

B. Introduce policies such as an internal (some of us have customers to deal with) ZERO email/chat/tele-conferencing Friday.

C. For the courageous… after all, we are working more anyway, reduce work to a 4-day week.

This does not have to be forever… These are different times and why ignore that. Is it not about time that we address this properly, with measures that we know will have an impact rather than put your biggest asset to the test on how resilient they are?

If that does not convince you, think about the productivity gain you will get when you show that you care about your workforce.

Leadership does not end within your organization. What does your brand stand for?

Many organizations also have significant influence through their supply chains, customers and contractors, and can use their influence to encourage and support a culture of employee wellbeing.

Not less significant and definitely more timeless action is that leadership should take this opportunity to ensure that people’s wellbeing is reflected in how deals and working pressures are structured against customer expectations and contractual requirements.

When an organization really addresses this, then not only will you take your employee wellbeing seriously, but you will create an empowering culture where your workforce wants to and feel they belong.

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