Why this is not the time for presenteeism

Opinions on working from home, and antiquated perceptions of presenteeism, could finally be changing as a result of COVID-19. Leadership expert, equality campaigner and author Hira Ali believes that the culture of presenteeism is, rightly, under the spotlight. In this Q&A Ali explains more about presenteeism amidst the coronavirus outbreak 

Why do some people suffer from presenteeism more than others?

Being absent or working from home is, traditionally, associated with laziness; there is also a long-standing office culture where the expectation is to not just to show up, but also be available after office hours. On paper, there is flexibility, but the reality is different, and working from home or leaving early often has negative connotations – hence, the practice of being present at work for more hours than is actually required, and even in illness, has become common. 

This is not surprising given how redundancies are prevalent and how highly unpredictable the job market is. Brexit makes it worse. Expats and immigrants, especially, feel the pressure to over-perform and be seen. People feel threatened and insecure about their jobs all the time so they want to be perceived as someone who is always there, and working hard, above and beyond the call of duty. Coronavirus is now adding an additional layer of stress and worry for many workers.

Is presenteeism an issue that affects more women than men?

The increasing prevalence of long working hours has had a negative impact on women more than men. The imbalance in the design of work-life balance policies between men and women reinforce gender stereotypes and differences between paid work and care. While research has shown that the gender pay gap is narrowing for young workers, it is widening among working mothers as they are, effectively, suffering a pay penalty for taking time off or working fewer hours than men. When women are at home, or leave early, they feel guilty and fear that they are missing out on important assignments at work. 

The technology that facilitates answering emails at all hours in the evening also puts working mums at a disadvantage as they already bear a disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities. Organisations need to stop valuing presenteeism, and on-call availability, if they wish to level the playing field for women with children.

What do you think about presenteeism?

Presenteeism, including people coming into work when they are ill, has more than tripled since 2010, according to the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Wellbeing at Work survey, and the trend seems to be growing.

Despite the alarming figures, only a handful of organisations are taking steps to challenge these unhealthy workplace practices. Work-life balance has massively deteriorated in the past few years with constant pressure to perform and deliver over and above the expectations. In the commercial environment we are living in, very little value is placed on self-prioritising or taking breaks for rest and recuperation. 

The other day my husband and I were discussing how rarely he takes a sick day from work. This might be a good sign, though I refuse to believe that, out of 365 days, there isn’t a single day he can take off to rejuvenate and re-energise; after all, prevention of sickness is important too, right? What’s more, how about annual holidays? I know many people who are afraid to take the days that are rightfully theirs in order to take to rest from work because they will have too much work to do upon their return!

Organisations must realise that an employee physically working within an office doesn’t necessarily guarantee improved results or productivity. Flexible working hours, work from home opportunities, job-sharing and part-time jobs, when appropriate, are options which organisations can evaluate to ensure they retain talented employees..

I hate to say this but, perhaps, it had to take a global emergency of this kind, with little choice available, for some businesses and leaders to seriously start evaluating and considering viable work from home options. Sometimes we don’t value or appreciate a certain option until it is the last one. Yes, the economic impact could be enormous but, according to the theory of relativity, taking precautions, and working from home instead, is a better option than being sick and not working at all.

What will be the impact of leaders telling people to work from home on a larger scale than has been seen in recent years? Could this end up being the biggest number of people working from home in recorded history?

It will definitely be more valuable and effective if such a mandate comes from the leadership. Anything coming from the top is seen as an endorsement to take that action with less hesitation. Yes, this could, potentially, be the largest number of people working from home – and it might be good in the long run. We would be in the position of such a practice having already been initiated and implemented on a global level, so it won’t be such a novice practice after all. It could even get to be more socially acceptable!

What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on organisations in the medium-term (next few months)?

There is definitely a lot of fear and anxiety at all levels. I am not an economist and so can’t comment on the economic and financial impact other than that global financial markets seem to indicate that the world economy is on a path to recession. However, from a diversity, inclusion and belonging point of view, I fear that the escalating panic could also lead to an increase in racism and xenophobia, with people developing a prejudice/bias against certain communities.

Since I train and coach people from diverse communities, I have already sensed the immense pressure among people from certain communities, and how vulnerable and cautious they already feel. Taking precautions is sensible but it could help to do this while being sensitive to other people’s feelings, and without making them feel awkward. ‘Stereotype threat’ – a situational predicament in which people are, or feel themselves to be, at risk of conforming to stereotypes relating to their social groups – is a real threat, which could negatively impact the mental wellbeing of people belonging to marginalised/victimised communities.

What advice do you give to any business leader considering how to respond in the face of the current virus advice?

I believe that businesses should think critically, act sensibly, and avoid creating panic. We require new strategies of mitigation, rather than containment, and businesses need to be informed about the change in trend, not just on a daily basis, but an hourly basis. 

Since we live in an online world where information is disseminated quickly, businesses shouldn’t assume that there is information available externally meaning that they don’t need to do anything internally for their organisations. Instead, they should create as much awareness as possible so that people are well-apprised of the risks involved. Efficiency, resilience and flexibility in the current situation will go a long way. This should also be taken as a learning experience, and an opportunity to prepare for future situations of this scale.

For women who are suffering from fear of failure, imposter syndrome, fear of missing out (FOMO) and concerns about how they’re perceived at work – what do you think coronavirus anxiety is going to do to them and what advice would you give women who are worrying about it at the moment? 

I think global emergencies show all the more that we live in an extremely unpredictable world, and that such challenges can affect every person equally irrespective of their race, background, qualification or experience. It’s a humbling feeling; difficulties such as these don’t discriminate.

Any person, at any time, can be affected anywhere. So, what is there to worry about? I often ask women who experience fear and anxiety ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ and coronavirus is presenting a worst case scenario in many ways, isn’t it? So, if we can successfully battle this, and come out of a global crisis such as this, over which have little or no control, then what’s stopping us from progressing at work and overcoming our own personal obstacles which we have full control of? 

I believe these women will come out stronger – they just need to reframe their perspective in viewing the situation overall.

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