HELP, I’m distracted! Why presenteeism is a problem, not just at Christmas…


I sat at my desk this morning and started writing a light-hearted festive blog about workplace productivity in the Christmas season. We’re all partying, eating and drinking, and doing the bare minimum at our desks. I’d only got two paragraphs in, by which time I’d had a call from a friend, looked at some shoes on sale, Google-mapped a venue for a meeting on Friday, paid for a school trip and ordered a new dog bed.  I was certainly not being productive! I was present but absent, and sadly it was nothing to do with having gone out and had a good time.

It occurred to me that this is presenteeism, and it’s a problem that is clearly NOT just something that happens at this time of year!

Presenteeism used to specifically refer to employee productivity that was lessened by coming to work when they were sick and should probably have been at home in bed.  More and more it’s being used to describe the way in which we work and how our productivity is challenged by the way in which we live. We face constant distractions. We can barely have a face-to-face conversation without beeping or buzzing and we struggle to focus even when we’re on our own. We tap or swipe our phone screens an average of 2,617 times a day!  And the constant alerts from watches or emails remind us there’s a bargain to be had or that someone needs something from us. It’s an adrenalin-fuelled pastime that is hard to ignore and is making us stressed and unproductive.

The British Heart Foundation suggests that presenteeism due to stress and issues with mental health could well be costing the UK economy £15.1bn a year and it’s obvious that technology plays a large part in it.

BUT what to do with this tide of technology? You can’t get an entire workforce to turn off their phones, emails and alerts; we’re all adults after all!

I was reminded of a story I heard from someone that worked in a careers office (in the dark ages before mobile phones). They had a phone system that would call you at 10:30am to remind you to stop and take a break. Everyone would put down their pens, walk away from their desks and phones and head to the staff room where they had a tea rota. They’d all have a drink and a chat and after 20 minutes or so head back to their desks, focused and refreshed.

It’s old-fashioned I know, but there’s something wholesome and nourishing about legitimising ‘switching off’ and taking a break! We didn’t have access to work 24 hours a day back then, but I bet they were more productive and happier overall.

Riding the tech wave requires organisations to culturally shift, so that they can thrive on the benefits of technology but care about their employee’s mental health and wellbeing too.

With that in mind (and phone turned off), here are some thoughts for diminishing your company’s tech-related presenteeism in 2018!

1.    Be open. Create a culture in which employees have a safe place to share worries with colleagues or line managers. It might not be work related but if they feel supported they are more likely to perform their best

2.    Organise a review of your workplace policies and help staff understand their individual working style. By opening up the conversation about distractions and presenteeism you will be able to explore with them how to maximise their most productive times of day. This could include different working hours or a period in the day when they acknowledge they would benefit from putting their phones away.

3.    Build a working environment that celebrates a good work/ life balance, where taking work home and answering emails in the evenings is not encouraged.

4.    Time management training with trained staff on how to schedule their day so that there’s a time set aside for social media, prioritising emails or booking a holiday! No business expects employees to have their head down eight hours a day but minimising the distraction or saving it for less-focused hours will maximise output in the day.

5.    Encourage a healthy balanced lifestyle by offering gym memberships, a team sport or a group walk at lunchtimes. Spread awareness on the importance of getting quality sleep, and encourage staff to communicate with their line manager if it’s becoming a problem. Supply fruit and plenty of water.

6.    If you are worried about your teams stress you may need some Mental Health First Aid!

I could definitely benefit from thinking about my productive times of day and making sure I maximise them whilst using the less productive times to get my personal admin and emails done – guilt free!

 Would be great to know what you think? Is there one change you could make in the New Year?