Presenteeism: Friend of the “quiet quitter” but a costly foe to organisations


  • Beyond sick days: we explain and identify presenteeism’s causes and effects, and how organisations can overcome it.

  • The link between presenteeism and the “quiet quitter” which is leading to more frequent/longer absences and staff turnover.

  • The insurance value of addressing presenteeism and the costs of absenteeism in the workplace.

Showing up to presenteeism

Presenteeism is when someone continues to work but is unable to fully perform their duties due to injury or sickness – including mental health sickness. It can also be due to employees feeling disengaged in their role, leading them to physically ‘show up’ but work to levels that are less than optimal for business productivity.

With heavy workloads, pressured working environments and increased demand from businesses, employees might feel compelled to continue working despite any health or personal issues. Unfortunately, whilst this might seem as though they are just powering through, it’s likely that their performance is suffering as a result, and this can become a vicious cycle if not addressed.

Presenteeism is a concept often discussed but one which is hard to quantify. Lockton’s new report Waking up to Absence (opens a new window) points to research showing employees are fully engaged in their work for three hours per day, which leaves a lot of time where employees are focused on things other than their work.

The influence of remote working

With working from home being a popular choice for employees and many organisations looking to attract and retain talent, the unfortunate outcome has been that there is now ‘no switch off’’ with employees likely to continue working from home whilst they’re unwell or clock longer hours whilst they juggle their home lives.

In one respect, the pandemic has blurred employer-employee expectations for taking sick leave and the time to recover. Fostering a positive culture of care is at the core of addressing every aspect of the way presenteeism is viewed and handled by an organisation.

A trending term on TikTok, but what does the “quiet quitter” mean?

Unaddressed presenteeism can lead to what’s known as “quiet quitting”, a commonly used buzzword. But what is “quiet quitting” and why/how has this new phenomenon come about?

An unforeseen result of the pandemic has been the movement of people revaluing their lives. More people have opted to walk away from their jobs/careers and take up something new that perhaps offers them better flexibility or an improved lifestyle.

For those who have not left, some have chosen to stay and limit their workloads – also known as the quiet quitter. In effect, rather than leaving a role, employees cap their tasks to just those outlined in their job description rather than the notion of ‘going above and beyond’ to obtain the work-life balance they seek, setting clear boundaries with their employer.

In a recent survey undertaken by the Society for Human Resources Management, 14% of managers had workers who were quietly quitting and only 20% were willing to do additional work.

The impact of presenteeism on accidents and injuries

Presenteeism not only impacts on productivity of a workforce but may also contribute to increased accidents and injuries if the employee does not pay attention to the work at hand.

Findings from Lockton’s Waking up to Absence (opens a new window) report revealed in one ASX-listed company, presenteeism contributed to 19% of an organisation’s total cost of absence – a far greater cost than workers’ compensation premiums. In our view, workers’ compensation opportunity costs within premiums are increasingly now often less than 10% of the total cost absence for any given organisation.

An added consequence of presenteeism is the errors and inefficiencies that can occur. This can lead to more injury and illness and in turn cause more regular/greater absences - meaning other employees burden the workload which can have a domino like effect across the workforce. Quiet quitting can also further decrease morale amongst teams with employees less likely to do additional work.

What should executives look out for?

An organisation’s absence data may give insights into the potential impact of presenteeism within the workforce. Organisations should pinpoint potential trends of presenteeism within their workforce, for example:

  • Short but frequent absences: a first sign of presenteeism is employees taking days off work more often. This can be their way of attempting to cope with the physical, mental, or personal issues that they’re dealing with.

  • Different demographics: this may be a lead indicator as to why people are having small absences from work i.e. staff with carer responsibilities or employees with health conditions needing recovery days off work to sustain longer term employment.

What should people leaders look out for?

  • Attending work unwell: employees might be persistent with their work despite injury or illness, feeling the need to ‘soldier on’. People leaders should encourage sick days and the importance of recovery.

  • Lack of enthusiasm for their work: if an employee is sick, injured or has problems in their personal life, their enthusiasm and engagement at work is likely to decrease.

  • Decreased focus: those experiencing an injury, mental health issue or personal situation can be easily distracted from their work, leading to a decreased attention to detail.

Addressing presenteeism

For example, an organisation may focus on increasing the reporting of issues. Identifying ways to allow increased reporting of issues which impact presenteeism without making employees feel vulnerable or judged may be beneficial. Issues such as pain and discomfort, personal issues or work overload can be ameliorated by special leave provision or revised deadlines that may prevent longer term absence.

Fronting up to quiet quitting

Sometimes employees can be disengaged or quiet quitting because they’re not aware of other opportunities that exist in their business. Better communication on these could be the boost an employee needs to regain job satisfaction.

Insurance value of improved presenteeism

Improving presenteeism within an organisation often leads to the biggest financial benefit and overall ROI. Addressing presenteeism doesn’t only have a positive impact on an organisation’s overall productivity, but it can significantly improve an organisation’s people insurance premium outcomes.

Sometimes accidents in the workplace occur due to lack of attention or concentration. This may contribute to an increase in slips, trips, or falls, errors and omissions occurring in production or other areas of service. When a person’s mind is elsewhere, the likelihood of errors occurring increases.

Additionally, when an individual is disengaged from their workplace, internal disputes can be elevated and be given more weight and significance due to distrust or disconnection.

Presenteeism brings an erosive element into the workplace. Lack of enthusiasm and engagement may be passed on to others and the risks associated with this can increase exponentially.

Final thoughts

Presenteeism and other associated absence drivers create a complicated framework in which to vies a workforce. Organisations should look at their employee absence data through a total lens rather than a segmented lens, and see what patterns are driving absence in the business; and then targeting ways to get the best ROI from wellbeing strategies, or identify ways in which to re-engage a dis-affected workforce.

In an environment of staff shortages and an increase in competition for talent, presenteeism is just part of the picture, but it is an important one. It is important not only from a cost saving perspective, but it also decreases disruptions within teams, and promotes a healthier workplace with a culture that makes individuals feel safe and cared for. These factors are known drivers for long term employee retention.

Download now

Click the download button (located on the right for desktop users and at the bottom for mobile users) and fill out the form to access our Waking up to Absence report.

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Waking Up To Absence by Lockton Australia