Elisabeth Winkler
October 1, 2022

Presenteeism: In Sickness and in Health

Friday, 5:30 am. Morning shift. I’m at the tram station - with a stomach ache. Nothing new here - my stomach isn’t known for its tolerance towards sudden changes in my routine. Getting up three hours ahead of my usual time? A big no no. But staying at home? An even bigger one. If I stayed home every time I had a stress-induced stomach ache, I’d have to call in sick every second week. Why? Because im living with a chronic disease, just like 38 % of the German population


We live in an economic and social climate where we have to constantly perform in order to advance in our career. People are afraid of falling behind, of angering their colleagues or boss, or they would rather work than lay in bed - that’s why about 53% of employees come to work although they’re not feeling well. Even if they call in sick, 64% of professionals said they simply work from home instead of truly resting and trying to get better. This phenomenon is called Presenteeism and it’s not just bad for the sick person, but also for their coworkers and their company. Studies estimate that Presenteeism accounts for annual economic losses of 10% of the German BIP, because sick workers are rarely productive workers. In addition, studies have shown that one sick employee can spread his/her germs to about 40-60% of all frequently used surfaces in an office - thus likely infecting fellow coworkers.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

When you’re chronically ill, you don’t just have to deal with the issue of staying home or going to work 3 or 4 times a year - depending on your illness, you might have to deal with it every day. For fear of being relegated to second place or, on the other hand, favored, people often keep their illness to themselves. Apart from that, it can get very tedious to explain your sickness and special needs over and over again, especially if you have a condition that you feel embarrassed to talk about. Also who wants to feel like they have to justify themselves all the time? However, not explaining yourself often results in a lack of understanding from coworkers and supervisors when you’re sick quite often. And even if you explain yourself and people are understanding, they often fail to grasp what chronically truly means: your illness will never go away, it will never not be an issue - a fact that becomes annoying to many people over time.

These problems are hindering in finding routines that might help you cope with your illness. My sickness for example, colitis ulcerosa, doesn’t make me less productive, it only makes me dependent on a certain routine - if I can follow that routine, I’m fine. But to get what you need, you first have to communicate what that is, and that can only happen when you feel safe to do so. It is a real fear that you might loose your work if your boss thinks your illness makes you less capable of fulfilling your responsibilities. The hardest thing is that this might even be true. Accepting that you can't and shouldn't to certain things because of your illness often feels like surrendering to it. Navigating these issues truly isn't easy - I struggle with it every day.

Company Culture

Unfortunately, many companies still support a culture which makes employees feel that staying home is not acceptable. Some employers reward their workers for not calling in sick, amazon, for example,factors sick time into employee bonuses, and Daimler gives out annual rewards of about 200€ for not being sick. Another problem is the hypocrisy of employees who complain about their snotty, coughing colleague, telling him/her to go home and two weeks later come to work a sick mess themselves. After all, actions speak louder than words and thus it becomes an unwritten rule that one does his/her best to come in to work - no matter how sick.

And then there is the issue of your own importance, you might work in a big company where someone else simply picks up the slack in your absence, so you being sick won't ruin the company you work for. Things are, however, entirely different if you are working for a startup or if you are self-employed. In a small firm of maybe four coworkers, there is no one who can do your work for you, so being sick for even a day will have a notable impact on your firm - a problem which has no easy answers.

Finding Solutions within "New Work"

There are several different approaches towards improving employees' health, each one with its own merit: seminars, like the CDSMP developed at Stanford University, help chronically ill people manage their illness, bigger firms are establishing independent support centres for their employees, and some firms are restructuring their corporate culture in the spirit of "New Work" - perhaps the most wholesome approach. New Work opens up new ways of coping with illness and supporting the work-life balance of employees, which might prevent them from becoming sick in the first place. Workspaces are being modernised and working like Google, but without working for Google, is becoming a thing. Offices now often include bean bags and couches, gyms, and foosball tables - features designed to help workers relax and re-charge. Work places are trying to foster a sense of community between colleagues through team events, community breakfasts and the like. A more casual, friendly and open work environment can definitely encourage people to voice their problems and communicate their needs, but it can't stop there - people also need to be heard for real change to happen.

Additionally, flexible work time and the option of home office make it easier for chronically ill people to keep their routines and fulfill their needs, and it also makes it possible to work through a cold without infecting all your co-workers. The flip side is, of course, that the technology which makes us so flexible, also makes switching off really hard - theoretically we could always be reachable and work all the time.

It's a work in progress - we all have to find what suits us best and maybe try to see Work-Life Balance as something else than an empty phrase again.

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