The Loop

The Power to be Present…or Not

Filed under: Absenteeism/Presenteeism

In January, a somewhat surprising topic dominated the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland: Mental health. Actress Goldie Hawn held a session on meditation to show delegates how it can combat the impact of stress. The Prime Minister of Norway declared that mental health was her leading health care priority. The WEF presented findings from its commissioned study concluding that mental disorders represent the single largest health cost in the world, with global projections expected to outstrip the combined cost of diabetes, cancer, and pulmonary diseases by 2030.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the leading cause of absenteeism in the United States is depression. Recent research by Gallup revealed that about 12% of workers have been diagnosed with depression at some point, and that the illness costs U.S. workplaces $23 billion in absenteeism. But those numbers represent only those workers who stay at home. More difficult to measure is the impact of those who go in to work, mixing depression with low productivity to cause what is known as presenteeism – present but not engaged. A 2012 study by Standard Insurance Company concluded that the majority of loss of productivity in the workplace is caused by presenteeism.

At least one employer is working to combat lost productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism with a rather liberal solution: Unlimited paid time off (PTO). Netflix, with more than 900 employees, has sought to create a culture of performance tied to defined outcomes rather than time spent at work. The key to this strategy is to empower employees to decide for themselves whether they would be focused at work on any given day...or not. Netflix seeks to hire employees who are self-motivated and self-disciplined, and in return rewards them with freedom. In his own words, CEO Reed Hastings said that, "We think you have to build a sense of responsibility where people care about the enterprise. This requires thoughtful, mature, high-performance employees." As long as the quality of work is high and it meets stated deadlines, the employees can come and go as they please.

Obviously, this laissez faire approach to absenteeism won't work in every profession. Consider the impact if school teachers, doctors, and transportation workers simply decided to take sick leave without advanced warning. Thus, as is true for many worksite issues, a single problem calls for many different solutions to meet diverse challenges and situations. Standardized policies and legislation, such as the FMLA, may not meet all needs.

One way to work with the problem is to identify individuals who seem to suffer most from the malaise, and get to know them better to help discover causes and potential solutions. For example, it can be helpful to determine if a person is suffering from a medical condition, a mental condition, or a resource issue. Mental conditions and their solutions can vary widely, from developing coping mechanisms for dealing with stress (exercise, meditation) to behavioral or drug therapy.

In many cases, unproductive levels of anxiety may be a symptom of yet another condition, such as lack of competent back-up resources for child care or aging parents. Or perhaps your employee is embroiled in a legal action or undergoing financial programs. An employer may be able to address these situations by offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers legal and financial counselors, back-up care resources, and personal counseling.

In many scenarios such as these, having an inflexible attendance policy could do more harm than good. For example, a depressed or anxiety-riddled worker may be motivated to come to work in order to avoid disciplinary measures, but spend the entire day worried and unfocused – creating the potential for injury at work. That day may have been better spent finding a solution so that he can return to work fresh and unburdened the next day. If an employer offers solutions through benefit programs, a worker can feel that much more confident that he will not be penalized by taking advantage of benefits offered. Generally, it is more cost-effective to help incumbent employees address absenteeism and presenteeism issues rather than experience turnover.

Now more than ever, the key to productivity is engagement. Bear in mind, however, that the key that unlocks engagement may be as different for each employee as the key that unlocks their home.

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