Work doesn’t have to be a finish line that you cross at the end of a exhausted week | Amanda Wallis and Gaynor Parkin


VSnext to a construction worker who hasn’t slept more than four hours a night over the past week, a software engineer who struggles with a persistent cold but continues to work from his home office and d A teacher who worries about his students then shows up every day despite feeling emotionally exhausted.

What do they have in common? Presenteeism, otherwise known as the act of working when not feeling well – physically, emotionally or mentally.

To be perfectly frank, presenteeism – like burnout – is more often than not an individual response to a systemic problem. Few of us would rather be at work when we feel like garbage. Tackling presenteeism involves tackling mismanagement, toxic work cultures, and socio-economic trends and inequalities that force people to prioritize hours worked over their own health and that of their colleagues.

In writing this we recognize all of this and the long road our work cultures must travel, and we offer hope on how we will get there. Holding the “and” is a psychological practice commonly used in several therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). In its simplest form, DBT encourages a balance between opposites.

One of these opposites – at least in current discourse – is that of productivity and well-being. Maybe we think of our work as a machine – a mechanism in which we grab hours and get money in return. We tell ourselves that if we manipulate input (i.e. hours worked), we can maximize output (e.g., bigger paycheck and fast-track promotion).

But, when we increase our working hours out of compulsion rather than passion, we are subtracting time from our time to connect, sleep, move, rest, create, play, cook or explore. We use our time as a commodity to trade for more money, to the detriment of our health and well-being.

Keeping the “and”, let’s explore an alternative. What if we were supported by a work environment that encouraged us to be productive and to be in a good health? What if our workplace celebrated achievements and also discouraged from having sleepless nights to reach the test line? What if we could take enough time to recover from physical or emotional difficulties and we knew our work would be waiting for us when we got back?

It should be noted that for some people, including those living with a chronic psychological or physical illness, presenteeism is inevitable. For these people, presenteeism might be the best option for them and their organization.

But outside of these chronic cases, we are considerably more productive when we work in a healthy and engaged way, compared to working while ill. We can achieve this state more deliberately, most of the time, by taking time to rest and recover when necessary, which reduces periods of illness and improves health outcomes, and by ensuring our well-being. so that we are less stressed and sick to start with.

By tackling presenteeism, we can make the most of our workdays and treat our free time as a chance to do more of what we love, rather than being a finish line that we cross in the end. of each day or week – exhausted and breathless.

For organizations, that means doing three things right.

First of all, wellness isn’t just wellness, it’s a strategic opportunity. While supporting the well-being of people should always come from the heart, it is also a virtuous circle for the results of a company with a demonstrable return on investment.

When we care for our people correctly and with integrity, we reduce presenteeism and absenteeism, which leads to lower personnel costs (the biggest expense for many companies). We also reduce the business risks associated with health and safety incidents and reap the benefits of a high performing organization that attracts and retains the right talent in a tight market.

Second, you don’t know what you can’t see. Sometimes you have to dig below the surface to understand the magnitude of the problem. We often speak with employers who judge the health of their employees based on whether they hear of problems or not, not realizing that the responsibility for creating a culture of safe disclosure lies firmly with their courts. Plus, waiting until issues are serious enough to land on the CEO’s desk is a costly exercise for everyone involved. Proactive support is crucial.

The most effective way to accurately and proactively determine well-being and presenteeism is to conduct anonymous assessments that provide a full picture of the results and the factors that contribute to them, supplemented by 1: 1 interviews and conversations. team.

These communication channels allow business leaders to accurately assess the scale of any problem and take evidence-based action to address them at the root.

Third, building a culture of well-being and productivity means helping workers to be truly present. Once you’ve brought well-being to the board and determined the extent of the problem and its cause, that’s when the real work begins.

Some of the best initiatives range from actively encouraging sick time and vacations to having protocols in place for limited email access and scheduled shared recovery times where meetings aren’t booked, like around lunch time.

Addressing presenteeism and being truly present is the antidote to our “always on” culture – where our thoughts, emotions and actions collide. Being authentically present helps calm overwhelm, the spiral of stress and the need to work late to “show face.”

It creates space to rest and recuperate, a focus on results rather than hours worked, greater collaboration and creativity and, ultimately, greater productivity and performance.

  • Dr Amanda Wallis leads the research program at Well-being umbrella and is passionate about making psychological research usable in our everyday lives.

  • Gaynor Parkin is a clinical psychologist and CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing, a team of psychologists who support well-being at work.


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