Showing Up Just for the Sake of It

Presenteeism - Showing Up Just for the Sake of It

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Victoria Heath

Don't let presenteeism take hold in your working life

Where are you reading this? Is it the office, your home or maybe in a cafe? One of the few positives to emerge from the pandemic is having more flexibility over where and when we work.

But rather than seize this opportunity to enjoy a better work-life balance, many of us are falling back into, or building on, bad habits. Like presenteeism, or its modern upgrade, digital presenteeism.

What Is Presenteeism?

A definition of presenteeism is when you feel the need to work long hours or do extra just to be seen doing it. You may be tired, unproductive or even sick, but still feel pressured to work.

And presenteeism can be a vicious cycle, with people working when they're ill, becoming more unwell and even less productive. For example, in the U.K., it's estimated that presenteesim costs 35 productive workdays per worker a year. [1]

Before COVID, presenteeism could be staying at your desk past finishing time. Now we've taken it home. Studies show we're working even longer hours, just doing it remotely.

Digital presenteeism is setting in. We're answering emails and sending direct messages at all hours. In short, we can't switch off.


Presenteeism is not the boastful or arrogant behavior of wanting to be seen to be working long hours or doing extra work. Rather, it's the fear that others will think you're not doing enough. And this should not be confused with Impostor Syndrome, which is the unjustified fear of being "found out" as incompetent or unworthy.

Why Presenteeism Happens

For many, presenteeism is a legacy of office culture. People don't want to be the last to arrive or first to leave. We worry that our bosses will frown, or that our colleagues will gossip – affecting our chances of promotion.

The pandemic has spiked feelings of job insecurity, making many of us feel the need to go the extra mile to hold down our jobs when others are losing theirs.

Trouble is, research shows our fears might be real. A 2019 study found that remote workers have slower salary growth than their office-based co-workers. Psychologists point to unconscious biases at play:

  • "Mere-exposure effect" – the more you see someone, the more you relate to and like them.
  • "Halo effect" – you fall into the logical fallacy trap of seeing someone as nice (because of their politeness, for example) rather than productive. [2]

These phenomena can conspire and lead to people getting promoted over less-seen but more-skilled employees. Just because they turn up!


Presenteesim is often grouped with absenteeism, but the latter is unscheduled absence from work through sickness or other unplanned circumstances.

Presenteeism and Mental Health

Presenteeism doesn't just bring anxiety. Research suggests it can actually be caused by stress, lack of sleep, and poor mental health.

Worryingly, studies show that our mental health has declined during the pandemic. We're sleeping less, are more depressed, and fretting extra over our physical and financial health. [3]

What's more, remote working has brought the new issue of social isolation. We see extra hours clocked as a way to connect with people, but they sap our energy, along with our Wi-Fi.

How to Stop Presenteeism

If these signs look familiar, or you want to stop the creep of presenteeism in your workplace, try these tips.

1. Lead From the Front

Leaders and managers should strive to model a healthy work-life balance. So, clock off on time – whatever that is – and let people know that you're signing off for the day. Encourage employees to take breaks from their desks by sharing posts of you doing the same.

You can also let your team or wider organization know if you take a sick or mental health day. People will feel less concerned to "be seen" if their boss isn't always around to watch them.

2. Focus on Outcomes

Hours clocked are an unfair and inaccurate measure of productivity. So, share with your team members what outputs you do value - making your expectation clear and visible to everyone.

Take consulting company Artemis, for example. After scoping projects, it breaks tasks down into blocks of time needed to complete them, then allocates each to employees. Staff work when and where they want to – and managers see what's getting done. [4] This is often known as a results-only work environment (ROWE).

3. Offer WFH Support

The pandemic pushed working from home (WFH) or hybrid working onto us whether we were ready for it or not. But it's not too late for people to learn valuable skills such as time management and tips for managing boundaries.

Help your people to identify what routine works best for them. Say, short bursts of work with regular breaks, or fitting in exercise to help maintain energy levels.

Professional bodies that deal with HR and personal development, such as the CIPD in the U.K., also recommend improving people's "mental health literacy." That way, they can better manage their own mental health and support colleagues. [5]

4. Talk Openly About Mental Health

Mental health is still something of a taboo in many workplaces. That's why a Deloitte report recommends we have open conversations about mental health. [6]

Make well-being talks a routine. Start with your onboarding and continue with regular check-ins between managers and employees. Until we all get more comfortable talking about our mental health, workplace apps such as Trickle let people ask for help anonymously, and get the support they need.

You can find more information on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) site in the U.S.

With the rise of remote working, more of us have an opportunity to reach a better work-life balance. But to do it, we have to re-evaluate the way we work and discard instilled, harmful behaviors such as presenteeism – in the office or virtually.

As research director at Gartner, Alexia Cambon says, "In essence, we need to stop designing work around location, and start designing work around human behavior." [7] Do that and we can show up and be our best at work.

Key Points

Presenteeism is when you feel the need to work long hours or do extra just to be seen doing it, even if you are ill or otherwise not at your best.

Managers can minimize presenteeism by following a few straightforward steps:

  1. Lead from the front.
  2. Focus on outcomes.
  3. Offer WFH support.
  4. Talk openly about mental health.

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