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Remote Presenteeism: Conversation Over Confrontation

Unless you’re cloistered like a monk, you’ve been dealing with a din of new distractions working remotely these past few months. One could say that the pandemic is a petri dish for presenteeism.

If you notice your team’s productivity dropping because your members are having increasing difficulty staying on task, you are not alone.


Address the problem with conversation, not confrontation or corrective actions, urges a national employee assistance program (EAP) advocate.

There are varying definitions for presenteeism, not to mention the old debate about whether it’s a real word. Greg DeLapp, CEO of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), describes it simply as a worker who is “reporting for work but is not really here.”

Getting to the Cause
“Presenteeism is a very real phenomenon and it’s becoming more and more of a problem,” said DeLapp, citing studies that show increases in such presenteeism issues as finances and personal relationships during COVID-19.

“What’s important is what’s behind the distraction. The cause becomes the focus of their attention. You have to identify and deal with the cause in order for it to be fixed.”

There are plenty of distractions out there. A survey by SellCell, a comparison site for cellphones, found that 80% of the 2,000 remote U.S. workers it surveyed admit to slacking off while on the clock. (The biggest distractor was social media, while a good share of respondents said remote work has increased bad habits such as overeating and not exercising.)

DeLapp has been addressing presenteeism since the late 1970s. He worked for more than 30 years in employee assistance for a specialty steel company.

“I saw presenteeism as really problematic in areas of safety,” DeLapp said. “In other environments, it’s problematic in what you contribute to the group.”

When having the presenteeism talk with your team, start with a little self-disclosure, he said. “All of us working in remote situations are experiencing this at some level. It [the conversation] doesn’t start with fault. It starts with reality. Say ‘I do this too.’ Describe your challenges and ask, ‘Are any of you experiencing this too?’

“People are usually willing to talk about the situation.”

Presenteeism ‘Tells’
But what if people aren’t disclosing their problems, or talk doesn’t lead to improved worker focus? How do you identify and address the causes behind presenteeism, especially when working remotely?

“You often hear talk about the distractions — the dog, the kids, the emails, tech problems that keeping going on without resolution, asking questions about things that have been discussed before and there is little eye contact in visual exchanges. You get a sense of a problem; that they aren’t there,” DeLapp said.

“As a manager, you need to know what quality work looks like and non-quality work looks like and ask, ‘Why aren’t we getting results?’”

Some organizations are trying to monitor their remote employees with software that can detect if employees are at their computer. But the standard workday is a thing of the past in these remote times, and attempts to look busy should be too, DeLapp said.

“When you are discussing what your people are doing to bring their attention back to the screen, you may find out that it’s taking a break and going for a walk,” he said.

EAP Time
Finding and addressing the cause of presenteeism may need to involve an EAP, which, according to a new study, has remarkable success in reducing distractions that are hurting worker productivity.

DeLapp advises contacting EAP and then approaching the employee, saying “Something is going on here. The normal things I tried are not getting what I am looking for. Would you consider talking with the folks [in EAP]?”

Then ask the employee to contact the EAP and ask how you can help along the way.

“Again, it doesn’t have to be confrontational,” DeLapp said. “The person ‘in trouble’ tends to survive on denial and manipulation.”

And you’re not dealing with an overnight problem. “I tell managers on every level that no one walks in the door of EAP based on one incident,” he said. “They are not a novice to the problem. There has been an issue for weeks, months, years. It’s time for an objective third party to approach the problem.”

Presenteeism was identified as the No. 1 employee issue in terms of negative impact on the workplace by the recent Workplace Outcome Suite (WOS) Annual Report. That decade-long study, conducted by Morneau Shepell, a provider of EAPs, and DeLapp’s EAPA, also concluded that presenteeism has the greatest extent of improvement after EAP counseling, translating into the greatest source of cost savings and ROI.

The study sample included 35,693 employees with self-reported data collected from 2010 to 2019. It measured employee feeling at the start of EAP counseling and about three months after counseling ended. The study found:

• The issue was making it difficult to concentrate on work: 56% before counseling, 28% after counseling.
• Dissatisfaction with life overall, indicating a level of clinical distress: 37% to 16%.
• Not being engaged in their work: 32% to 23%.
• Missed a half day or more of work time: 29% to 13%.
• Feelings of dread when going to the workplace (workplace distress): 22% to 13%.

EAP counseling estimated ROI for employee ranged from 3:1 for small businesses; 5:1 for medium-size businesses; and 9:1 for big businesses in the United States.

Short-Term Fixes
DeLapp says changing workforce demographics have led to different EAP goals during his time in the profession. “When I started, the goals were very tangible, such as reducing absenteeism and medical costs,” he said. “We made assumptions that people would stay with the company for 30 years.

“Now its three to five years, maybe. So, EAP is about getting more out of them when they are with you, not long-term changes.

“It’s more reflective of the current situation.”

About the Author

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Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.

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