Wellness Wednesday: Present…But Not Correct

University of Kent Occupational Health and Wellbeing Manager, Brenda Brunsdon

Have you have heard of the word ‘presenteeism’? If you have, did you wonder what it means? A good definition can be found on dictionary.com:

 – the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc., often resulting in reduced productivity.

– the practice of working long hours at a job without the real need to do so.

Practising presenteeism is known to be a negative thing for a person’s health and wellbeing. People who practice presenteeism, especially where it is related to working when ill, anxious or injured, are engaging in work tasks when they are not in an optimal or best state to do so; this could be physically or mentally. This means they are struggling at some level to get through the work they are doing. This will likely lead to them become more physically or mentally fatigued or badly affected; it can eventually lead to ‘burnout.’

This leads to us to need to understand what the term ‘burnout’ means. The World Health Organisation recognises ‘burnout’ as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. Mental Health UK define burnout as ‘a state of physical and emotional exhaustion.’ It describes the following as common signs of burnout:


  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed


As well as having a considerable negative effect on someone’s health and wellbeing, presenteeism is seen to be bad for a person’s productivity and performance. Working while battling symptoms of physical or mental ill health can reduce productivity significantly. Research by Paul Hemp published in the Harvard Business Review looked at the three common health issues where people often work with symptoms and the effects on productivity. The health issues were seasonal/allergic rhinitis and hayfever, migraine and depression. All were associated with a drop of productivity of between 4-8%.

Work culture and high workloads and demands can lead people to work way beyond a standard 35-40 hour working week. However, research by John Pencavel at Stanford University showed that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. Those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours.

Presenteeism is also bad for organisations. Research has shown that work carried out by people who are distracted because of health symptoms, family concerns or psychological issues is below the standard they produce when they are well or otherwise unimpaired. Two studies, the 2015 Global Challenge 100 Day Journey and the World Health Organization (WHO) Workplace Health and Productivity Questionnaire (HPQ) offer data to show that the relative cost to companies of presenteeism in relation to absenteeism could amount to over 14 times.

This reflects the findings of an earlier study by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health in 2007-08 which estimated annual costs of presenteeism to UK employers in mental ill health terms was nearly double that of absenteeism costs.

Perhaps it is worth reflecting on your own habits and practices in relation to presenteeism? If you think it is something that you do, perhaps it is worth attempting to discuss it with your manager or your colleagues?


‘Burnout’ on mentalhealth-uk.org

Presenteeism: at work–but out of it’ by Paul Hemp published in the Harvard Business Review 2004

‘The Productivity of Working Hours’ by John Pencavel, Stanford University & IZA, 2014)

What is presenteeism? The price of productivity loss’ by Lauren Payne on enhesa.com

Mental Health at Work: Developing the business case’ by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2007-08

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