Why is presenteeism such an issue?

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Why is presenteeism such an issue?

Why is presenteeism such an issue?


Presenteeism has long been a blight on French offices. And nobody benefits: productivity isn’t any better, nor is quality of life at work, let alone the work-life balance or diversity (social, gender, geographic etc.). And yet, the French find the idea of showing your face in the office to be, quite frankly, irresistible. It even applies to working from home in lockdown, which has taken people physically away from their places of work, but hasn’t stopped them feeling that their commitment is still measured by the yardstick of their hourly availability (even during the small hours of the morning, in the late evening, with children in the background, or during meal preparation times)! So how did this culture of presenteeism take root? And why is it so hard to get rid of? How can we go about changing mindsets in terms of engagement at work?

What it means to be “present” at work

A time and space for work: a duty and the rights that go with it

For a long time, people worked in the same place as where they lived (farms, mines, factories, and so on) and any time away from work was spent recovering (sleep, food) so that they could get back to work later.

The first regulations on working hours date back to the mid-19th century. Employers were prohibited from forcing long working hours on children, then on women… And finally, in 1919, on all workers. From that point, no-one could be asked to work for longer than 8 hours a day.

Several laws on working hours followed. The number of weekly hours was reduced, paid leave was brought in, and supervised break times were allowed. This social progress was tough to negotiate… But it brought with it a legislative approach which endorses the idea that an individual’s time is dedicated to an employer. And people made themselves available in return for a certain number of social rights. People would clock in and out in order to show their superiors that they had been at their place of work. But clocking in doesn’t mean doing meaningful work!

The “command & control” management technique

This approach values work according to the time spent on it, in the place where it is supposed to be carried out. This situation generates a managerial culture: team leaders check that everyone is in position before looking at how each person is doing their job. Admittedly, now the economy has become service-oriented and more and more people hold “executive” status, some things have changed: people have started to understand that what really matters is not necessarily just showing up at the office (and possibly having your mind elsewhere) but proving that you are making an impact. If the task in hand is completed by the deadline, why should the place or time matter? And that’s just common sense for professions that don’t require employees to be physically present in the workplace, especially now digital tools have become widespread.

But debates over the last fifteen years on working from home suggest that, even though there seems to be a clear, rational reason to work remotely (savings in company property charges, less travel time, improved productivity), it is difficult to develop because of the inertia of a “command & control” management culture. When managers have tight control over their employees, they may be concerns about dwindling commitment, disorganized processes, or even a temptation to overlook the absence of certain employees if they are not “at work”. Meanwhile some workers’ unions may be wary of remote working because it transfers the burden of finding suitable office space, a working telephone and internet connection and so on to the individual, without even considering the social and mental difficulties that can arise when people are cut off from others.

If you’re not present, you’re absent.

But does France really suffer from such staunch presenteeism?

In 2019, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s annual health and well-being at work report revealed that the country is the “champion” of Europe in terms of “going to work” at all costs. 83% of French employees declared that they were guilty of presenteeism, i.e. they had been to work without really doing anything useful, either due to a lack of motivation or not performing well due to their personal condition (62% said they go to their place of work even when they are sick — The investigation was conducted before the CoVid-19 pandemic).

Other studies show that employees are reluctant to use the flexible working measures or work-life balance measures established by their company, because they are afraid of losing their manager’s trust, of not being there when important decisions are made, and missing key information about current tasks or new opportunities. The saying “The absent are always in the wrong” seems to be deeply ingrained in people’s minds. But should we really be criticizing presenteeism so harshly when so many of us are doing so much of it?

The morals of presenteeism

A guilty conscience needs no accuser

Presenteeism becomes even more contradictory when people do it while working from home, whether by choice or due to a health crisis. We make our presence known as much as we can by sending out streams of emails, making endless phone calls, taking part in video calls, and sending deliverables at any time of the day or night. And what better proof could there be, if any is still needed, that presenteeism is not about the workplace or the tools you use, but about culture? And our culture is beleaguered with immense feelings of guilt.

Researchers Bénédicte Berthe and Marc Dumas studied presenteeism in the light of emotional levers among nursing staff: well above a fear of managers or the burdens of processes, what trigger presenteeism is the latent feeling of never doing enough, of not being up to the job and therefore even the fear of betraying your vocation. Seeing your job as a mission increases kneejerk presenteeism reactions and can even lead to irrational decisions. For example, a caregiver coming to work while they are sick runs the risk of making errors, worsening their own condition and/or passing on their illness to the very people they are trying to help.

An economy built on the taboo of laziness?

But a person’s inability to shake off feelings of guilt or a reluctance to take a step back from what they consider to be their vocation doesn’t go far enough to explain presenteeism. While many high-profile studies have highlighted the economic and social cost of presenteeism, and in its shadow, burnout syndromes, we hear less about the burnout economy : in the recent Histoire de la fatigue (The Story of Fatigue), Georges Vigarello explains that being overworked is now more socially acceptable than being rested. But others go further, noting that the idea of being called “lazy” is utterly abhorrent to most people, and kept so by society maintaining that a person is individually responsible for their own destiny. As a result, the economy is provided with a workforce that is more servile than ever.

The economist Thomas Coutrot, who heads up the “working conditions and health” department at the Dares (a French national labor statistics research organization) encourages people through various books and contributions to “truly liberate work” by transforming how it is organized and how people are managed, so that each person can thrive by “doing” and “contributing”. And that means first eliminating fear at work: fear of being judged, fear of losing your job, fear of being stigmatized if you do lose your job, fear of being accused (or accusing yourself) of laziness when you don’t have the courage, strength, desire or health to do your work, or the conditions you need to work well.

Overcoming presenteeism

What individuals can do

Setting presenteeism aside can feel like swimming against the tide in rough seas! But there are some things you can do to stop it from becoming harmful:

  • Set aside time for work, and time for your personal life. When one bleeds into the other, presenteeism rears its ugly head and becomes excessively demanding and exhausting.
  • Look into the principles of “digital ecology” by steering clear of your workplace tools before and after certain times, such as weekends or during annual leave. And if you can’t manage that by yourself, at least refrain from making demands on other people by sending requests for action during daytime office hours. What you can’t do for yourself, you can sometimes do for somebody else!
  • Plan a little time each evening to take stock of what you have accomplished during the day, so you can start feeling that you have done enough, rather than being wracked with guilt that you haven’t achieved everything you wanted.
  • Negotiate with your manager to establish a clear framework for their expectations in terms of exactly when you need to be available. Let your manager know when you are available for video calls or reachable on interactive tools, so that they no longer consider you to be permanently on call.

What managers can do

Managers also have a role to play in reducing presenteeism:

  • Setting an example for managing work-life balance is the most important aspect. An employee will never feel completely comfortable leaving the workplace or shutting down their computer at home if their supervisors are always logged on!
  • A manager’s expectations need to be completely clear, in terms of results as well as methods and resources: an employee must know exactly what share of the work they can accomplish alone, and which tasks require interaction with the group (and when everyone needs to work together on these interactions and when they can be performed individually).
  • A manager needs to make sure that these collective interactions are organized efficiently, so that there is no room for presenteeism. Meetings shouldn’t become opportunities for people to feel acknowledged or recognized. Nor should they be used to share informal information that is unrelated to the project in question, or to settle scores in roundabout, less than well-meaning ways. If face-to-face simultaneous working sessions are to be truly effective and if bringing people together is to create genuine added value, other spaces and times must also be set aside to take care of individual needs and issues among people in the group: meetings for feedback, management processes to deal with tension and conflict, opportunities for more informal interaction and team-building, which are presented as such, time for formal information-sharing on organizational changes and the opportunities they can offer, and so on.

What the company can do

Companies must also take action to instill a culture of mobilization while its employees are immobile!

The first step is for them to change how they deal with “absences”. Traditionally perceived as times when people have simply “not shown up”, absences are linked with incapacity (illness, pregnancy, personal obligations to be satisfied, etc.) or leisure (time off, leave, etc.). This view is restrictive (because people do of course work even when others can’t see), but it also has a moral element in which the absent person is always in the wrong… Or in any case, work must not be top priority for them! Guilt (and anxiety) are regular visitors to pregnant women, young parents, sick people and their caregivers, but also anyone who has trouble “disconnecting” on weekends and vacations, anyone who worries about what someone else will think if they have to leave work early for some reason. The first step to assuaging this guilt would be taken if we stopped seeing absence as a breach of integrity. If we could stop using physical presence as an indicator of a person’s courage, determination or commitment, and start bringing it into a more rational perspective, considering for example that sometimes people need to be absent and we should sometimes allow for that (and not discredit them in their career) by adapting to their pace. Perhaps we could make transformations in how we work together so that these people can play an active role even when they cannot always be physically present?

Companies can also sanction presenteeism. Certain methods such as “tracking” to assess productivity are old-fashioned and don’t meet the need for meaning, the desire for autonomy and the culture of well-being at work. Others, such as systematic inclusion in evaluation interviews and conversations about genuine presence requirements can help people to take a more flexible approach.

But to make meaningful change, “working hours” must be the subject of a collective conversation within the company, one that goes beyond questions about flexible hours or working from home evaluation systems and really gets down to brass tacks. The value of work needs to be assessed by casting aside binary patterns that compare means against results, time spent against profitability, resources used against profit generated. For example, highlighting the value of extra-professional experience (that people develop when they are “absent” from the workplace), measuring negative external impacts better (the burden of presenteeism in the short, medium, and long term on stress, commitment, employer attractiveness, etc.) as well as positive impacts (for example, workers are sharper and show better perspective on situations when they have breathing space) and building inclusive environments where everyone can express their individuality without having to pay an individual price, and while contributing fully to the group, through a reasonable code of requirements in terms of participation during group work.


Written by Marie Donzel. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson

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