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Present but unproductive

Published on Thursday, 12 May 2011

Have you ever showed up for work when you are physically sick or badly in need of a break? While doing so deserves credit for commitment, it does more harm than good to yourself and the company in the long run.

The study of presenteeism, a term that refers to people reporting for work but not being productive and fully engaged because of poor health or life-issue distractions, has been a hot topic overseas since the mid-1990s as more researchers begin to realise its hidden cost to staff and organisations.

To employers who equate absence with non-productivity, the stats couldn’t be more alarming. United States research shows that “presenteeism” accounts for 61 per cent of an employee’s total lost productivity and medical costs.

“There will be negative influences such as physical exhaustion, sickness and poor mental functioning. For manual work, there are even safety concerns,” says Andy Chan Wing-chiu, associate professor of management and marketing at the Polytechnic University.

“In the long run, staff will feel weary and less satisfied with their jobs. It will also affect their sense of belonging to the company.”

Causes of presenteeism are many, from physical pain, such as stomach aches, to personal issues such as family problems. Yet in Hong Kong, the fear of negative appraisal from superiors is a major reason. “It now happens more because of tougher job demands and fierce competition,” Chan adds.

Many staff wouldn’t dare leave the office until their bosses do, despite feeling physically and mentally exhausted. That is a problem because people should use the time to refresh themselves for work the next day. “This is just not productive,” Chan says.

In fact, good supervisors are more appreciative of people who know when to take a break or when to call it a day.

“Your supervisor would not like to see you at work when you have the flu because you could spread the virus and infect other people in your team,” says Paulina Wan Man-kei, a senior teaching fellow of the department of management at Lingnan University and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management.

“Coming to the office when you shouldn’t be working doesn’t necessarily mean that you are hard-working or important.

“On the contrary, it raises questions about your time-management skills,” she says, adding that it is important to raise staff awareness on health and stress-related issues.

Managers should be more flexible about staff taking sick leave or working away from the office.

Above all, people should have the mentality and skills needed in a team so that no one would be overburdened and individuals could take turns taking a vacation if necessary.

“Better training and development can motivate people to have some knowledge and skills outside their normal roles. This allows for more flexibility,” Wan says. If you don’t feel well, you can go home and rest, knowing that someone could cover for you.”

Ways to tackle presenteeism

Learn how to delegate work effectively People feel exhausted when they have too much or too little to do. A balanced workload will keep them focused and motivated.
Develop a team mentality People work best in a team. There’s no need for superheroes but just responsible people getting along well and supporting each other.
Take a break Showing up for work but unable to deliver will just irritate your boss and colleagues. Know when to take some time off. Having a healthy mind and body is a prerequisite for doing a good job.



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