Using presenteeism to predict absenteeism Issues

A tracking mechanism is key to knowing if there’s a problem at an organization
By Paula Allen and Luc Bourgeois
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/30/2015

The fact that absenteeism is annually a multi-billion dollar drain on the Canadian economy is not lost on employers. Ninety per cent recognize absenteeism is not only very costly, it negatively impacts productivity, according to the 2015 Morneau Shepell report The True Picture of Workplace Absenteeism. However, only one-half (52 per cent) of responding employers indicate absenteeism is a serious issue.

This disconnect between employers’ recognition of the cost and productivity impact of absence and their view of the seriousness of the problem hatches a chicken-egg dilemma. Organizations are beginning to take absence tracking more seriously: The number of those tracking increased from 36 per cent last year to 49 per cent this year, according to Morneau Shepell’s 2014 and 2015 Compensation & Trends in Human Resources survey. 

That means, however, that more than one-half of employers do not track the cost of incidental absence — short periods of time off work — in their organization. They may think such absence is purely a cost of doing business, they are already taking effective measures to manage absenteeism or absenteeism is not something they can control. 

However, because absence isn’t tracked, they have no real understanding of the magnitude of the impact of absenteeism on their organization or whether any efforts are making a difference.

If employers don’t know what they don’t know about the status of the absenteeism issue, they are even more in the dark about presenteeism — the time employees spend at work while not productively engaged in work. Only one-third (32 per cent) see presenteeism as a serious issue at their organization, while 53 per cent of employees think it’s a major concern. 

And employees undoubtedly have the inside track: 81 per cent stated that, in the six months prior to completing the Workplace Absenteeism survey, they had gone into work when they were not able to perform as well as they would have liked or as well as they had in the past. 

The seemingly complacent attitude many employers have towards incidental absence management and presenteeism has the potential to foster a culture of absence. Not only will absenteeism and presenteeism continue to negatively affect an organization’s bottom line, the magnitude of the impact may grow. That is an unfortunate outcome, given that the research establishes that some portion of both absenteeism and presenteeism is not only controllable, it’s predictable. 

Managing absence

One of the most revealing data points to emerge from The True Picture of Workplace Absenteeism study is that slightly more than one-half (52 per cent) of incidental absence is not due to illness. 

The research surveyed 1,005 employees, 100 employers and 104 physicians in late 2014 to gather input on absenteeism. One conclusion was that work-related factors play a role in predicting whether the type of incidental absence is related to illness or non-illness reasons. 

Non-illness-related absence (not related to either a mental or physical health issue, but to a personal issue, practical issue or choice that is not related to illness) is more likely to occur where workplace stress is reported by the employee, and where the employer does not support mental wellness.

In short, many employees take brief periods of time off work simply to de-stress, particularly in situations where there is no focus in the workplace on reducing stress. These findings suggest there could be a significant reduction in absenteeism if employers paid more attention to creating a work environment that supports mental health. 

The presenteeism-absenteeism cycle

The 81 per cent of employees who self-reported presenteeism were as likely to have had diminished productivity due to work issues or stress as they were to physical or mental illness. Again, if employers were to establish a work environment that supports mental health, they could dramatically reduce presenteeism, along with non-illness-related incidental absence. 

In fact, the relationship between presenteeism and absenteeism may have a cyclical nature, with work stress leading to presenteeism, leading to more work stress, leading to a non-illness absence, leading to additional work stress, leading to illness due to workplace stress, circling back to work stress.

The longer work stress remains unaddressed in the organization, the more it will result in presenteeism, leading to increased incidental absence, and perhaps even short- and long-term disability absence.  

Stopping the cycle

When employers do not pay sufficient — or the right type of — attention to absence, they are vulnerable to worsening cost and productivity issues. Employers that have no absence tracking mechanism in place cannot determine if or where there may be a concern. Such employers are also inadvertently sending a message to employees that absence is not important enough for the organization to track. 

When employers rely primarily on physician notes to validate incidental absences, they ignore the fact employees typically visit a physician to get the note at the point when they are ready to return to work. As such, the physician may not have seen the employee while he was ill and the note itself might mask and validate a non-medical reason for absence. 

The insights provided by the study point to solutions, beginning with implementing an attendance reporting and tracking system. Tracking enables employers to identify employees who need support in managing health, workplace or personal issues. It also helps to ensure early and timely intervention for employees with longer-term absences leading to disability leave. Equally important, tracking determines whether absence management initiatives are having a positive impact. 

Once employers are aware of the degree of the absenteeism problem, they can begin to manage it — along with presenteeism — by addressing specific factors in their workplace. Steps can include:

• Leverage data from both the organization’s employee assistance program provider and employee questionnaires to determine the specific drivers of workplace stress for employees.

• Implement actions that support workplace mental health and wellness as they are integral to an absence prevention strategy.

• Ensure managers are trained to recognize and intervene appropriately with a problem-solving focus when an employee’s work behaviour changes and presenteeism becomes an issue.

• Develop and implement clear messages, actions and investments that support work attendance in order to directly address or prevent a culture of absenteeism.

Employee absenteeism is not random and predictors of both illness- and non-illness-related absence can be influenced by an employer. Rather than adopting an attitude of complacency, employers should take advantage of the tremendous opportunity they have to influence absenteeism in the workplace and ultimately improve the health, well-being and productivity of employees.

Paula Allen is Morneau Shepell’s vice-president of research and integrative solutions; Luc Bourgeois is manager of research and analytics at Morneau Shepell. Paula can be reached at and Luc can be reached at

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