Are you avoiding absenteeism or promoting presenteeism?


Absenteeism has historically been, and continues to be, viewed as one of Australia’s largest threats to productivity. HR in practice elaborates on the ins and outs of how this effects your business.

In 2018, absenteeism was estimated to cost the economy upwards of $30 billion. While this is alarming, the obsession with strategies to reduce absenteeism has not necessarily always proved effective in curbing the problem of lost productivity. On the surface, reducing absenteeism may appear to minimise the issue, yet often, it instead leads to cases of presenteeism.

So, what are these issues and what is their true cost?

Absenteeism is commonly defined as an employee’s intentional or habitual absence from work. Common causes of absenteeism include:

  • lack of leadership
  • poor organisational culture
  • bullying/harassment
  • feelings of disengagement in the workplace.

In many cases, businesses fail to dig deep enough to recognise and address these causes. Once employees return to work, the issue is seen to have been resolved, or, in fact, there is no acknowledgement or recognition that an issue even exists.

It is common for businesses to believe that by eliminating absenteeism, the problem is eliminated. This is at their peril as they can consequently become subjected to presenteeism.

Presenteeism is when an employee appears for work when they are not fit to do so. Their presence in the workplace suggests they are ready and willing to work, but in reality, this is not the case. The costs associated with presenteeism are just as high, if not higher, than the costs associated with absenteeism.

For instance, take an employee who is unwell. Were they to take a single day off to recuperate, they would cost the business eight hours in lost labour. Naturally, any lost productivity, particularly for small businesses, is critical to minimise. However, research has shown that employees who force themselves to work through illness or injury often perform at a reduced capacity and, in the long run, end up needing more time off to recover.

In that same vein, an employee who comes to work while sick puts both staff and clients at risk. Should this employee infect others, the business will see a further loss in productivity as other staff members are forced to take sick leave. This example highlights the importance of the personal/carers leave entitlement.

Take another example: an employee who feels overworked and burnt out. They may believe taking any leave will let their employer and  their team down. The risk here is, if they continue to come to work, not only will their own work be of a reduced quality, their stress may also negatively impact on those around them. This highlights the importance of annual leave as a means of allowing employees the chance to refresh, recharge and return to work ready to give their best.

Practical steps businesses can take to reduce the occurrence of presenteeism include:

  • implementing policies that encourage workers to take leave when they are unfit for work, as well as openly discussing that fact in the workplace. A separate policy on annual leave is also encouraged
  • creating an employee assistance program that can provide support to workers who may be suffering from personal issues (including mental illness)
  • providing training for management (and employees) to recognise the signs that someone may be suffering from presenteeism similarly, providing training to managers to address stressed employees (eg, reasonably redistributing workloads across the team)
  • If, as a manager or employer, you believe an employee has appeared for work when they are not fit to do so, send them home (possibly, in a taxi/uber if commuting on their own, could create further risk/s).

Whilst absenteeism is undeniably an important issue, presenteeism is often widespread and goes unnoticed and unmanaged. This is to the detriment of the business as the costs of presenteeism have been shown to be even higher. By following the steps above, businesses can begin to confront this issue with a view to eliminating it as far as is practicable.

Wentworth Advantage operates the HR in Practice workplace relations advisory service for APA Business group members. If you have any questions about this article, contact the HR in Practice service on For more information on the benefits of joining the Business group, email or call 1300 306 622.

Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is general comment and is not intended as advice on any particular matter, nor should it be relied on as a substitute for legal or professional advice. Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd expressly disclaim all and any liability to any persons whatsoever in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by any such person in reliance whether in whole or in part upon any of the contents of this publication.

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