What is Presenteeism?
I heard a strange word the other day. It was “presenteeism.” Having no idea what this word meant, I looked it up. It has a dictionary definition, but other descriptions I found of the word were much more enlightening.
Simply put, presenteeism is being physically at work, but being mentally out of it.
I don’t always trust Wikipedia as a citeable source, but its description of presenteeism makes sense in this particular context: “Presenteeism or working while sick is the act or culture of employees continuing to work as a performative measure, despite having reduced productivity levels or negative consequences.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presenteeism ) The other sources I found primarily address presenteeism as a business productivity issue, meaning it has financial ramifications and they attribute lowered performance to “illnesses you take to work.” (https://hbr.org/2004/10/presenteeism-at-work-but-out-of-it)
This word is interesting to me for several reasons, but I immediately wondered whether mental health has been included in the research, and to what extent. Like many illnesses, depression, anxiety, and overwhelm are hard to see, so they’re fairly easy to hide unless they’re acute enough to render a person unable to function normally. Or at least they were easy for me to hide until I ended up in a job I didn’t like, and then things started to go sideways.
How many of us have shown up for work with other things going on in our minds and bodies, and how many times have we done this?
If I’m being completely honest (which I try to be because that way I never have to remember what I said), while I was working for someone else, I was sometimes distracted or even consumed by situations that had nothing to do with work. A cold is one thing…you feel awful and foggy for a few days and then you’re usually right as rain. But when things happening around us make us feel totally overwhelmed or out of control, that’s a whole different ballgame.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was working full-time in a corporate job, and I had a heavy workload. My husband, Dan, and I had a 17-year-old toy fox terrier, Gracie, who was going blind. Because she didn’t see well, she walked into something outside that injured her eye. We didn’t notice it at first, but after she’d held her eye shut for several hours, we took her to the vet, who told us we’d need to take her to a specialist. The injury was extensive enough that Gracie’s eye had become infected inside the cornea (ouch!) and the specialist wanted to do everything possible to avoid having to remove the eye. They prescribed three different kinds of eye drops that had to be administered in a specific order with military timing. Mind you, heavy workload—and then putting drops in my dog’s eye every two hours got added to that list.
At this point you might be wondering if I mentioned any of this to my employer. Well, about that…far prior to that time I had figured out I was in a toxic working environment. I didn’t particularly trust anyone I was working with, especially not with something so deeply personal and unrelated to work, and management habitually defended clients’ bad behaviors and undermined employees’ efforts to create efficiencies and improve deliverables. Their actions didn’t match their words. All I could envision was a reaction that might be something to the effect of, “Gee, that’s too bad,” accompanied by a heavy dose of prejudice. I chose not to share. It was too personal, and I was doing my best to keep my act together.
It was a Friday afternoon when I slipped up and forgot to email someone a document. I was standing in the lobby of the eye specialist when management texted me to ask about it. I confessed I’d forgotten, and they asked if everything was okay. My reply was simply “no.” I didn’t say anything further because I didn’t want to sound like I was making excuses. It never came up again and I eventually left that position. I’ll fully admit that period of my life was the epitome of presenteeism, even though I didn’t know the word for it at the time. I was working, but work didn’t have my full attention. My precious Gracie did.
Gracie’s eye eventually healed, and my schedule went back to normal, so the presenteeism didn’t hang on during those last few months in that job. However, remembering that situation makes me think about how many of us might have been or might currently be stuck in jobs that leave us empty and spent, that suck away our souls one day at a time. It’s unfortunate that we have to make money in order to have a roof over our heads and food on the table, but it’s even more unfortunate to know that some of the working population—myself included until recently—is just earning a paycheck without the fulfillment of enjoying what they do for that money.
It makes me wonder how many people are phoning it in and just doing the bare minimum because they’re languishing inside.
I certainly don’t have life figured out and I might never. I’m fumbling my way through my second half-century learning how to be self-employed and trying to make a living as an educator and wearable art creator. However, this is forcing me to be fully present on an ongoing basis. Nobody else is going to show up and do the work. Nobody else is going to put money into my bank account. Nobody else is going to track my progress or hold me accountable (at least not in a management capacity). These realizations are as terrifying as the are freeing.
I’m curious to know if there are other people like me out there who feel or have felt they couldn’t divulge a personal situation to an employer for fear of criticism or treachery. Are you languishing in your work? Are you at risk or in the midst of presenteeism? Do you think your employer would be understanding if you told them the truth?