Could COVID-19 mark the end of presenteeism in workplaces?

Could COVID-19 end presenteeism?

‘Presenteeism’ is the corporate version of FOMO where employees don't want to miss a day at work when they're sick lest they're judged as being weak.

This week more children across Australia return to the classroom and workplaces will kick-start ‘re-entry’ plans that will see more employees return to their desks.

It will be a gradual process and the easing of COVID-19 induced restrictions comes with a clear proviso from the government – if you feel unwell, with even with the mildest symptom, you must stay at home.

But will we?

Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly expressed doubts himself when he suggested there are cultural disincentives for people to stay at home when they are unwell.  

“We really – all of us – need to take a new way of thinking about going to work, not soldiering on when you have symptoms that might be COVID-19,” he said.

There is a reason why “soldier on” was the catchcry of a popular cold and flu remedy for many years. It taps into a workplace ethos that called for ‘heroes’ to put the needs of their job above their own (as well as the needs of the person sitting within 1.5 metres of their coughing and spluttering).

Many of us have worked in such competitive cultures, where face-to-face engagement is key to building the visible profile required to attract recognition and promotion.

For some in these organisations, taking a sick day is a sign of weakness and working from home is only for those who are ‘less serious’ about their careers.

Human resources pundits call it ‘presenteeism’ – a corporate version of FOMO. As well as driving people to dose up on paracetamol so they can still traipse into work, it’s also linked to countless reports that show men are reluctant to take up flexible work arrangements, because they are fearful they’ll be judged as less committed to their job.

Ironically, despite dosing up on cold and flu tablets to get on with the job, studies have shown presenteeism has the potential to negatively impact a company’s bottom line as well as the economy. A 2016 study commissioned by Pathology Awareness Australia claimed presenteeism cost the Australian economy more than $34 billion every year.

In recent years companies have sought to address presenteeism by championing work-life balance and investing in technology to support flexible workplaces that recognise outputs over hours.

This work has been primarily instigated by a need to mobilise more women, constrained in the traditional role as primary family carer, back into the workforce. But as key statistics for workplace gender equality remain immovable, it suggests it has had very little – if any – impact.

But now the arrival of COVID-19 paints the cost of presenteeism in a different light, and as employees prepare to leave home and return to the workplace, HR departments have made it clear there will be a ‘zero tolerance’ to sniffles and coughs.

Has COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under those aged-old biases that once trained so many of us to think that sick leave or working from home is only for the soft and uncommitted? Or as unemployment rates rise and job security becomes tenuous, will presenteeism FOMO raise its ugly head once again?

And what about those who work under casual conditions, particularly those who complete tasks, such as customer service, that just can’t be completed at home? For them, heeding the advice of the Deputy CMO could mean the difference between having food on the table, or not.

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