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Presenteeism. Is it affecting your career?

When we meet our Members and they tell us they’re seeking local jobs to give them greater work-life balance, a certain word keeps coming up: presenteeism. It’s the enemy of working parents and anyone who has asked for flexible working but has had it rejected. And here’s why…

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is the need for an employee to be ‘seen’ to be at their desks. If your office doesn’t have many flexible or remote workers, it could be that your organisation has a culture of presenteeism.

It isn’t just a term that working parents have come up with either. Think about it. Say someone steps out to make a call, is there always someone who comes along and says, ‘Where’s X?’ They might do it innocently or they may well have a piece of work to run by the person. That’s what presenteeism is: an expectation that people will be at their desks unless they are in a meeting or working elsewhere within the building. And that commitment, is demonstrated by hours present rather than output.

How could presenteeism be affecting your career?

If you’ve had a flexible work request rejected, it could be that the company you work for cannot contemplate an employee who isn’t present every day. Have you asked for remote working for example? Or have you asked for part-time hours? Granted, there could be some jobs where flexibility just isn’t possible, but for the majority of professional roles, flexibility can be accommodated.

Presenteeism affects flexible working requests

  1. The client facing role

One of the main reasons for rejecting flexible working requests is because a business cannot digest the idea that there may be a time during the working week where clients or contacts do not have a main point of call.

We say, it works during annual leave and clients understand that the same person isn’t available for a whole week or two – so why can’t it work for early finishers or part-time workers? The answer is, it can.

  1. The senior manager

Sometimes employers don’t like the idea of a manager not being present when more junior staff are working at their desks. There’s an idea that they may not be able to perform to a high standard without a manager there to watch over them.

We say, by giving other members of a team greater responsibility, you’re proving your trust in them and they will be more likely to perform at a higher level. This is discretionary effort and you’ll soon be able to see individuals shine where you might not have done before.

Presenteeism affects employee engagement

It’s not just working parents who need flexibility at work. Look around, how many employees are regularly off sick? Are they working too hard or are they displaying signs of burn out? Absenteeism can be a major problem for employers. Learn more here in our blog on the subject.

We say, if a business demonstrates that it is a flexible employer, they can boost employee happiness. It’s proven that companies like Virgin and Netflix which offer unlimited holidays don’t actually find themselves without any staff for prolonged periods of time. Far from it, their employees feel trusted and are ready to work harder for their employer.

Presenteeism makes working parents feel second rate

Many working parents feel like they’re slinking out the door at the end of the day, even though they arrived on time and have been working hard since. It’s a case of being first to leave and it’s not a great feeling when all eyes are on you. We often hear that colleagues without children think this flexible working is unfair and should be extended to everyone in the office.

We say, if the rest of the office is still glued to their seats and it’s the same every night, you can see how working parents quickly feel like they’re breaking some kind of unsaid rule.

Yet the same parents are likely to be more productive, less likely to take long lunch breaks and spend time chatting with colleagues unnecessarily. They know they are on a deadline and have to meet it no matter what. And of course, if they’re on a part-time contract, they’re only paid a part-time salary. Learn more about attitudes towards part-time workers here.

Deborah O’Sullivan, Managing Director at Ten2Two says, “Presenteeism assumes that the hours of work are more important than the output and productivity of an employee. And that simply isn’t the case. We know that organisations that focus on the quality of the work rather than the number of hours a person is sat at their desks find that they can retain valuable talent, boost employee engagement and improve staff morale overall. And that leads to a better workplace altogether.”

If you’re an employer and you’d like to discuss any aspect of flexible working in greater detail, please contact Jane O’Gorman here at

If you’re seeking greater flexibility – perhaps you’ve just had a flexible working request turned down – you can register with our recruitment agency here. We’d love to try to help you find the antidote to presenteeism. We look forward to hearing from you.

5 min read