Bad for Business: People at Work Who Shouldn’t Be

by John Williams

Photo courtesy of Instant Offices

Today’s workplace culture has many workers feeling the pressure to turn up to the office at all costs, even when ill; however, the global pandemic COVID-19 has shown it is more critical than ever for businesses to tackle the widespread workplace challenge of “presenteeism” (coming to work when ill or suffering other anxiety).

As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread globally, employers should be discouraging, and tackling, presenteeism amid government warnings around social distancing and self-isolation.


The idea that being at work against all the odds is a sign of loyalty and commitment couldn’t be further from the truth. Studies suggest those who show up for work ill are significantly less productive than when they are well, and that the costs of presenteeism far outweigh those of illness-related absenteeism or disability. Here are some global statistics on the impact that presenteeism has around the world:

  • In the US, presenteeism is costing businesses around $226 billion per year.
  • Presenteeism in the UK has more than tripled since 2010, with 83 percent of employees saying they’d seen it happen in 2019, compared to just 24 percent in 2010.
  • In Japan, the cost is estimated at $3,055(¥336,612) per employee per year.
  • In the UK, reduced work efficiency caused by mental ill-health costs $790(£677) per employee per year.

Previously defined as “showing up to work when one is ill,” the concept of “presenteeism” has evolved to include a wide range of detrimental behaviors relating to how we work. This includes employees who arrive early and stay late to show commitment, those who work during annual leave and those who respond to emails at all hours — mistaking an unhealthy attitude toward work as a strong work ethic, often to the detriment of their personal wellbeing. Although those working from home are generally more productive than in an office, remote workers are, on average, working an extra 1.5 days a week, since they feel it is easier to finish a task as they don’t need to think about commuting.

Precautionary measures such as thorough regular deep cleaning and increased use of tools that help manage remote working are just two ways businesses are attempting to deal with the sudden outbreak.


A report on presenteeism by Employment Studies found some of the leading causes include:

Manager Behavior — Due to a sense of responsibility, managers can also be presenteeism culprits, unknowingly putting pressure on employees to act the same way.

Concern for Colleagues — Studies show employees are likely to go to work ill to avoid a colleague dealing with an additional workload or pressure, especially in situations where there is no replacement.

Company Culture — Studies have found perfect attendance to be seen as a sign of commitment to a job, while taking time off sick is seen as a sign of under-performance, particularly in the private sector; a work ethic can be unknowingly perpetuated in an organization by senior managers and long-time employees.

Job Stress — When it comes to stress and presenteeism, the correlation between the two is high, and employees who feel unsure about their job security are more likely to show up when ill.


As with anything new and unknown, there is a level of uncertainty that comes with a pandemic. Keep an eye on the news, and reiterate decisions that could affect their job/ability to work as quickly as possible to reassure people.

Ensure employees know that they are able to work from home. Although it may not be possible for all roles and industries, companies where staff are able to carry out tasks out the office should let employees know this is something they can do as soon as possible.

Encourage senior members to lead by example. By managing their own absence and presence and encouraging a healthy work-life balance, line managers and senior members of staff can act as better role models for the organization, inspiring their teams to do the same. Ensure employees are “online” during working hours and encourage them to log off at the end of the day as normal.

Enable flexibility. Employees who adjust their working hours and environment are less likely to fall into the cycle of presenteeism. By offering options such as flexible working options or hours, employees can feel more in control and still maintain their work.

John Williams is head of marketing at Instant Offices, part of the Instant Group. Founded in 1999, The Instant Group is a workspace innovation company that rethinks workspace on behalf of its clients injecting flexibility, reducing cost and driving enterprise performance. Instant places more than 7,000 companies a year in flexible workspace such as serviced, managed or co-working offices including Sky, Network Rail, Capita, Serco, Teleperformance, Worldpay making it the market leader in flexible workspace. Its listings’ platform Instant Offices hosts more than 12,000 flexible workspace centers around the world and is the only site of its kind to represent the global market, providing a service to FTSE 100, Fortune 500, and SME clients. With offices in London, Newcastle, Berlin, Haifa, Dallas, New York, Miami, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Sydney, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, The Instant Group employs 230 experts and has clients in more than 150 countries. It has recently been included in the 2018 Sunday Times’ HSBC International Track 200.

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