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Workplace illness equals lost productivity, lower revenue

Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Caroline C Ravello

Health is inextricably linked to productivity and therefore to the economic capability of individuals and populations. There is an accepted school of thought, too, that “there is no health without mental health” (WHO) and the current scenario worldwide, and that in which we are projected to live, bear out mental ill-health as having a sizeable socioeconomic impact on global realities.

As diseases and illnesses increase in the population – a present phenomenon for T&T as for the world – more people are reporting to work ill. The definition “reporting to work while ill” focuses on the issue of sick employees being present with suboptimal output. This situation is characterised in medical and occupational health as presenteeism. Scholars have determined that an ill employee in the workplace – a presentee – also impacts the output of co-workers who may or may not be in better health.

Unlike absenteeism, which has been studied extensively for decades, presenteeism is a relatively new focus in occupational medicine and in the work health literature. Presenteeism is characterised as low on-the-job output, and/or sub-optimal productivity, and is related to employees’ performance and overall organisation productivity, and extends as far as impact on global economics.

The phenomenon and its determinants present complexities, which, in many instances, have not gained full consensus in the scientific community. Still, estimates of productivity loss have been undertaken in health-related financial assessments and comprise essential data used for decision-making in health and economics.

Gosselin, Lemyre and Corneil (2013) say, “Presenteeism in the workplace, showing up for work while sick, seems now more prevalent than absenteeism.” They contend that that impact is changing the way employers look at absenteeism. Presenteeism scholarship is also prompting countries to review both private- and public-sector labour forces, examining implications for productivity and, ultimately, Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Presenteeism remains an underexplored concept to human resource and business management scholars. The concept finds resistance because it is not fully understood as much as its counterpart, absenteeism, which has been studied and quantified extensively.

Occupational therapist, Julie Entwistle (2014) says, that many employers and managers do not know “what presenteeism is, if it exists, and thus what to do about it” adding, “it is hard to solve a problem you don’t know you have” ( The literature, however, supports presenteeism as a greater problem than absenteeism. Compared to absenteeism, loss productivity due to reporting to work ill is estimated to be as much as five to ten times greater (Evans-Lacko & Knapp, 2016).

Mental ill health has been acknowledged as a major cause of presenteeism, and depression as the leading factor, making mental disorders the reason for the highest level of decreased output in the working population, according to Evans-Lacko & Knapp.

For that reason, mental health should receive appropriate and ample attention in an effort to promote and preserve healthy work environments and for implementation of work-health support/mediations.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. This fact locates mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability globally.

And, from among the 25 per cent of the world’s population who live with mental disorders, the WHO estimates that over 350 million people worldwide – about the population of the USA – live with depression, a significant contributor to the global burden of disease.

The concern must be that where presenteeism is unrecognised and unacknowledged – as in T&T – there it also goes unmitigated, without appropriate institutional support or individual intervention.

By example, a Medibank study on the effects of presenteeism on the Australian economy projected a US$35.8 billion loss to mental illness in 2050, at the current prevalence rate and without meaningful intervention.

• Caroline C Ravello is a strategic communication and media practitioner. She holds an MA in Mass Communications and has completed the Masters in Public Health (MPH) from The UWI. Write to: [email protected]


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