Presenteeism is the act of being at work but not really ‘there’. When employees are physically present but mentally absent the loss of productivity costs New Zealand businesses a minimum of $4 billion each year.
New Zealand Treasury assesses the costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism, working less and not working at all due to poor physical and emotional health. In its November 2010 paper it estimated the cost of lost hours at somewhere between $4 billion and $11.5 billion. Absenteeism accounted for just three percent of that figure, compared to 55 percent for presenteeism!
Of the remainder, not working accounted for 23 percent and working less making up 19 percent of the estimated cost. This research shows that presenteeism is vastly more detrimental than staff being absent.
According to a Ministry of Health survey, New Zealand has one of the highest prevalences of anxiety, mood and substance abuse disorders in the world. Studies have found that emotional health issues diminish productivity far more than physical health issues. The two however, may be inextricably linked.
Many medical professionals are convinced that unresolved emotional issues are a major contributor to many illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress related illness accounts for approximately 85 percent of all illness and disease. Dr Bruce Lipton, a cellular biologist and former professor of anatomy is convinced that figure is over 95 percent.
Stress is a complicated cascade of physical and biochemical responses to emotional stimuli. “As we think our thoughts and feel our feelings, our bodies respond with a complex array of shifts. Each thought or feeling unleashes a particular cascade of biochemicals in our organs. Each experience triggers genetic changes in our cells. Thoughts and feelings turn sets of genes on and off in complex relationships,” says Dr Dawson Church in his book The Genie in Your Genes.
New York Times best selling author and world leader in disease prevention, Dr Joseph Mercola, states “I have long maintained that your emotional state plays a role in nearly every physical disease, from heart disease, to depression, to arthritis and cancer. If your thoughts and emotions play such a significant role in modifying your biology and your health (and I believe they do) then treating your emotions becomes an essential part of optimal health.”
If emotional (leading to physical) ill health is costing New Zealand businesses between $4 billion and $11.5 billion per annum, it makes sense for companies to address this issue. Unfortunately taking a day off for physical ill health is still met with annoyance by many employers, let alone taking a mental health day.
Even in the mental health industry this is not an acceptable reason for being absent. A psychiatric nurse who has worked within the Canterbury District Health Board for over 20 years stated in an interview “If I said I was taking a ‘mental health day’ they would see me as weak and a slacker”. Such is the culture within our own mental health system that she was reluctanct to speak publicly on this subject and wished to remain un-named.
Taking emotional health days may not be the answer however, addressing emotional health certainly is. Many employers allow staff to visit a doctor during work hours. Visiting an emotional health professional is not looked upon as favourably and may attract derogatory comments.
One step businesses could take towards addressing this problem is looking at the workplace culture in terms of attitude towards health, in particular emotional health. Many businesses still have the culture that staff should keep their stress
or emotional issues to themselves, be strong and not let the team down. Unless the workplace culture changes, no progress can be made to lessen the impact of presenteeism.
Despite the appalling statistics, most employers don’t need studies to tell them that psychologically healthy people make better decisions and have better interpersonal behaviour. Basically, for colleagues and for customers, they are nicer people to be around.