A new white paper challenges the conventional wisdom about working while unwell and its implications for employee wellbeing in the workplace. Contrary to the prevailing belief that such behaviour, often referred to as ‘presenteeism,’ is uniformly detrimental to both employees and organisations, research conducted by Robertson Cooper, a specialist in employee wellbeing and psychology, reveals a more nuanced perspective.
This comprehensive study identifies three distinct categories of working while unwell, shedding light on the complexities of this phenomenon and offering insights into which specific type of behaviour should be addressed to promote a healthier work environment.
There’s an endemic issue at the heart of workplace culture and performance, one that threatens to undermine a range of important business level outcomes: presenteeism.
Cooper says that the most cited definition of presenteeism is “the phenomenon of being physically present at work but not fully functioning due to physical or mental health issues.” A very important caveat here is that presenteeism is not generally inclusive of ‘procrastination’ or being ‘unmotivated’. In the UK, 80% of employees work when sick. But, according to Cooper, there are important distinctions to be made regarding the different types of presenteeism.
Functional presence: Another branch of presenteeism
The study further examines a ‘positive’ side to working while unwell, whereby employees actually want to be at work and it can still be constructive to both employee and employer. The whitepaper defines this as ‘functional presence’ and breaks it down into a further two subcategories:
Pragmatic Presence: When people perform close to, or at, their full capacity and at the same time recover at least to a certain degree from their health impairment. These are the occasions when employees want to be in work to complete some tasks despite not feeling their very best; there are things they just want to get done. They accept they are not at full capacity, but prefer to complete some of their tasks at least, perhaps making some adjustments such as leaving work early.
Therapeutic Presence: This is when people are performing well below their maximum productivity, but they get some form of ‘therapeutic’ benefit by being in work. The benefit is usually the social connection and purpose they get from coming to and being at work. You may have heard people say “I am sick of being stuck at home doing nothing, I want to come into work”; this is Therapeutic Presence.
Professor Sir Cary Cooper, co-founder of Robertson Cooper, said: “This re-evaluation of presenteeism is a major breakthrough. It enables employers to truly understand presenteeism: what it is and what it isn’t; its real impact on workplace performance; what you can do to manage it more effectively.
“By dispelling outdated notions, it opens up a new era of informed strategies that optimise productivity and foster a culture of employee health and wellbeing.”
Ultimately, Robertson Cooper’s measurement methodology aims to provide businesses with the capability to distinguish between three categories of working while unwell, including presenteeism. Consequently, it equips employers with the tools needed to develop more effective strategies for managing and addressing these issues within the workplace.
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