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The Perils of Presenteeism Aug 21, 2019

Legal Process Outsourcing Melbourne

We all know about the issues that come with absenteeism (defined as frequent staff absence from work, often unplanned) – productivity, profit, client satisfaction and overall staff morale all suffer. But there’s a much bigger problem facing the Australian legal sector – presenteeism.

The term was coined in around 2004 by economists to describe worker slowdowns that account for up to 60% of employer health costs. Studies by Cornell University estimated that productivity losses from the practise exceeded the cost of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits.

It refers to the habit of employees showing up for work, even when they shouldn’t really be there. This might involve coming to work sick. when managing mental illness or chronic illness, while dealing with carer responsibilities or a family crisis – usually because the employee doesn’t feel they have the option to take time off.

The presentee mindset may come from either of these sources or a combination:

  • External pressure
    – Senior partners and management who, enforce unrealistic deadlines and workloads or have created a culture where a “good” employee puts their job first.
  • Internal pressure
    – An employee thinking they should put their job first. This is especially common amongst millennials across the workforce, not exclusively in the legal sector. High unemployment rates and job insecurity mean that young workers face greater anxiety around employment and are less likely to take leave in the fear it may jeopardise their future careers.

This trend is amplified in any sector with billable hours – so it’s extremely prevalent in the legal industry.

So what’s the problem? Logic dictates that a staff member who is at work has to be better for business than an absent one, right?

Unfortunately not. A staff member who is soldiering on at half strength – affected by physical illness or distracted by a family crisis, often working hard to hide their condition from colleagues and managers – will inevitably not be fully functional, but not willing to miss work.

This can have a variety of impacts on the workplace:

  • Poor work quality – Presentee employees may produce work that’s not up to scratch, leading to time and resources wasted as work needs to be redone.
  • Productivity – Distraction will affect speed of work, with everyday tasks taking twice as long and output slowing right down.
  • Client satisfaction – In the event that some sub-par work gets into a client’s hands, your firm’s reputation will suffer.
  • Contagion – Illnesses can sweep through an air-conditioned office in no time at all, meaning one sick staff member can infect a whole team; perpetuating the problem. This can also have serious consequences if there are immune-compromised members of staff on your team.

However, from a business point of view, the biggest impact of presenteeism is cost. Absenteeism is relatively easy to measure – for a start, you can simply calculate the cost of sick or personal leave hours taken. However, presenteeism is largely hidden and therefore harder to assess.

An American Productivity Audit calculated presenteeism cost employers USD 226 billion and a Japanese study has estimated a cost of USD 3,055 per employee, per year. While there are many variables involved in these figures, what is clear from both studies is this: presenteeism costs employers far more than absenteeism, where employees using their allocated personal leave – and it is much harder to budget for.

If you’re interested in the issues surrounding mental health in the workplace, have a look at the articles from our

Are you concerned that your workplace might have a culture of presenteeism? SBA can help take the pressure off – contact us today.



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