The two enemies: absenteeism and presenteeism

Companies that focus exclusively on ‘solving’ absenteeism might be missing a bigger problem and they risk trying to cure the symptom not the disease.

Bored people at meeting

Buddhism talks about near enemies and far enemies. Typically, the far enemy is the opposite of some good quality while the near enemy is a kind of counterfeit of the real thing. For example, the far enemy of compassion is cruelty but its near enemy is pity.

What has this got to do with business productivity? For me, this is a good way of thinking about absenteeism and presenteeism.

For managers, absenteeism is the obvious far enemy of a diligent, committed, happy team. It is what happens when people lie to the company (and sometimes themselves) about why they are not at work when they should be. However it arises, it’s clearly undesirable.

But absenteeism has a near enemy too: presenteeism. This is where people are physically present but mentally absent. It’s what happens when people tune out, lean back, dumb down and stop caring.

Both problems are often symptomatic of deeper issues in an organisation and a sign that change is both possible and necessary. Society inflicts rigid schedules on unruly groups like prisoners and schoolchildren. So why in business do we inflict it upon rational adults?

Do you hire people who can’t manage their own time? Do intelligent creative people automatically turn into lazy, work-shy frauds when they get to work? How can people fully actualise themselves according to someone else’s timetable? And are you providing your employees with important goals to work towards in the first place?

Companies that focus exclusively on ‘solving’ absenteeism might be missing the bigger problem of presenteeism and they risk trying to cure the symptom not the disease.

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