6 Effective Leadership Strategies to Address Presenteeism in the Workplace

6 Effective Leadership Strategies to Address Presenteeism in the Workplace

Written by Stephanie Diepering for 4Seeds  

We know all about absenteeism and how a high absence from work can impact on company outcomes. We know a lot less, however, about presenteeism. What is presenteeism you might ask? This is when employees remain at work despite being ill or incapacitated by chronic illnesses such as migraines, IBS, burnout or depression.

The implications of presenteeism have been shown to have a more detrimental effect to the bottom line and to productivity than absenteeism, with billions of Rands lost every year. The absenteeism to presenteeism relationship can be seen as an iceberg effect, where the numbers of sick leave days taken is minimal in comparison to the rate of presenteeism. And while measuring absenteeism is an easy numbers game, accounting for declined productivity and reduced engagement from presenteeism is a much more challenging task.

When staff are struggling with their health and continue working, their capacity for high quality and quantity of work can take a detrimental dip. This is a challenge for many employers, who may not even be aware of their employees reduced health. We cannot see from the outside when people are unwell, we assume that people manage their own health and that they would not be at work if they were unwell, however the truth is that up to 50% of employees in South Africa attend work when their health is compromised. This not only negatively impacts the health of the individual, it can increase the spread of disease in the workplace which can quickly become a drain on team and company resources.

Underlying the research on presenteeism is the assumption that employees do not take their jobs lightly, most people want to work hard and produce results, they are also concerned about job security and thus would rather continue working if they can (even if at reduced capacity).

Due to the economic situation globally and locally, many South Africans fear that they could loose their jobs to healthier counterparts if they were to expose their health conditions and thus would rather remain at work when they are unable to function at their optimum. The research shows that people would rather show up than appear to have dropped the ball. The reality, however, is that employees whose health is compromised, have reduced capabilities to execute work tasks which results in the reduced quantity and quality of their work outputs. Many managers are sceptic of employees who take sick leave or show “weakness” or “vulnerability” at work and the culture of “strong or be gone” further increases the likelihood that employees will not take time off during periods of serious illness.

For this reason, the word presenteeism and the growing body of research exploring this phenomenon is gaining traction and warrants the attention of managers, leaders and HR professionals alike.

Depression requires even more awareness as mental health is a larger societal issue than it first appears. The challenge with depression is that externally someone may look in good health however as we know with depression, they are most definitely not ok. This is a huge challenge for managers and HR professional as the indicators of illness are less obvious and require an acute level of transparency, monitoring and observation.

The South African Anxiety and Depression Group recently released the results of their study exploring the prevalence of depression in the South African workplace. They found that 1 in 4 people in South Africa are diagnosed with depression, while 80% of people suffering with depression continued to work during their last episode. And while these numbers alone offer a big eye opener the real shock is when we realise how depression influences our capabilities to perform a job.

74% of people suffering from depression reported reduced cognitive capacity including indecisiveness, poor memory, reduced problem-solving ability, slower thinking speed and difficulty concentrating. This substantial reduction in their cognitive capacity makes completing even simple tasks more time-consuming resulting in a low quality final product.

So how do we address this illusive issue in the workplace? It is important to first notice the signs and symptoms. Below are some of these key signs and symptoms.

Common Signs of Employee Presenteeism (Optima Global Health, 2013)

  • Reduced work quality
  • Reduced productivity
  • Delayed performance in meeting deadlines
  • Absence and tardiness
  • Changes to relationships that were previously positive
  • Changes in behaviour- irritability, short fused, disengaged, socially withdrawn

 Common Symptoms of Presenteeism on a Company (Optima Global Health, 2013)

  • Drop in productivity despite no changes in employee numbers
  • Increased use of employee assistance programs
  • Increased expenses from absenteeism

Do you identify some of these factors in your workplace? If so there this may be the time to consider how you can lower the presenteeism in your company. There are many factors which influence presenteeism however the suggestions below are some concrete ways you can start implementing to build a healthier and more engaged workforce.

6 Ways to Address Presenteeism at Work

  1. Promote a culture of transparency and acceptance that encourages disclosure of chronic conditions.
  2. Provide employee assistance services including a health professional referral network. Promote awareness and use of these support services.
  3. Educate your staff on depression and burnout and the cognitive symptoms that result from mental illness.
  4. Encourage teams to get to know each other better and to be observant of changes in their colleagues, ensure this is not a reporting communication style but rather a mutual support network.
  5. Talk openly with your employees about changes in their behaviour without eliciting fear of job insecurity
  6. Look at creative ways to manage a healthy organisational climate- introduce new health policies, recognition systems, workload balance procedures etc.


Presenteeism is one of the most silent drains on companies in the current economic climate. We live in a time when people are under pressure to perform constantly and keep their jobs. With this in mind, the expense of presenteeism in the workplace is ever increasing, with 50% of people reporting attending work when their health is compromised. The stigma around sick leave, mental illness and chronic diseases are a core reason for this phenomenon which can be influenced through education, transparency and policy development. The 6 strategies mentioned above are key to addressing this issue and supporting a healthy, productive and positive workplace.

Is presenteeism an issue in your workplace? Or have you personally experienced it? Please share your experiences and strategies with us in the comments block below.


How Maslow’s Needs Theory can drive employee motivation

How Maslow’s Needs Theory can drive employee motivation

Motivating employees remains a relevant and intricate topic many leaders deal with on a daily basis. Employees perform best if they are intrinsically motivated, which means they are interested in the task at hand, and can engross themselves in it. Most companies traditionally use extrinsic motivation factors such as incentives and rewards to stimulate performance, however this creates a gap between what is assumed to motivated staff and their actual needs.

The common factor is that both individuals and companies want to be productive.

Companies are doing their best, but perhaps not enough, to understand what motivates people, with the knowledge that people relate differently to certain stimuli. Then the question of how to motivate people arises, be it through rewards, incentives, praise or feedback. The conscientious manager and leader has most likely read books, done courses, browsed the internet, or experimented with the theories and models that have been developed, without finding one which is the ideal magic fit. This will have made them realise that every theory has an argument for and against it, and reason why it could not work in their team.

Let’s look at a brief historical synopsis of motivation; starting with the ancient Greek philosophers and weaving through the more recent development until the present day.

The Greeks believed that motivation was a hedonic philosophy where we behave in a certain way to forego pain or increase pleasure. In the current world, we refer to this as instant gratification where we either buy or consume things to get an immediate but short-lived feeling of joy, pleasure and happiness. Later, scientists believed motivation to be instinct driven meaning that it’s in our natural DNA to be motivated and pursue goals. Other researchers regarded motivation as reward-based, where our past experiences reinforce our current behaviours. This often arises from our upbringing and previous encounters with motivation which develops our motivational patterns and beliefs. In addition, our social and cultural environment influences our motivation as we want to fit in and follow the trend of other people’s positive behaviour.

There is some truth in each of the arguments as to what motivates a person while also highlighting the complexity of motivation. However, all the above theories focus on the individual and not on the company and how its infrastructure could potentially enhance and encourage an employee to be more motivated in their work.

Maslow’s Needs Theory requires little introduction and is the most popular amongst the many management and business motivation theories. Maslow, being a motivational content visionary, was searching for basic factors that explain human behaviour as well as what makes a person take action to accomplish goals. The principle of Maslow’s Needs Theory is based on three factors:

  1. The hierarchical levels are arranged from lowest to highest need.
  2. A person only moves up from one level to the next if the previous level has been satisfied.
  3. Unsatisfied needs stimulate motivation and the desire to fulfil the need.


The Needs Theory is tailored for an individual to satisfy their needs; starting with the basic physical needs and moving up the pyramid until the self-actualisation level.

But what happens if we move from an individual level and overlay Maslow’s Needs Theory into an organisational setting? Would the physical level have to be fulfilled first before we can progress an employee’s motivation to the next level?

Let’s explore what Maslow’s Needs Theory would look like in the life of an employee:


Maslow motivation



Are companies and employees perhaps out of alignment, where the company is focusing on a higher motivation level, with employees’ basic motivation needs not being met? Could this concept be a way forward for leaders and managers to determine what matters to an employee, and ensure that the basic motivation level is met, to shift the employee upwards from there? It may sound far-fetched, but it may close the current motivation gap and provide management with an applied tool with which to experiment.


Employee Recognition: The True Value of a Team Event to End the Year on A High

Employee Recognition: The True Value of a Team Event to End the Year on A High

As we near the end of another year, the idea of a year-end function begins to loom for managers and HR professionals. While it has become common practice for us to hold an end of year function, we may be missing the point of its true purpose.


Anticipating the start of the holiday period and the relief of another year being over are part and parcel of these parties; however, a team event can hold a deeper and more impactful purpose for your company – that of unity, celebration and employee recognition.


The term recognition is growing in its appeal with HR professionals and progressive leaders, because of its proven effect on productivity and engagement. However, are you aware of what employee recognition entails?


We believe that a pat on the back and a “Nice Job!” comment is enough to make our employees feel valued; however, these small gestures can often be superficial and “too little” to hold long-term benefits for individuals and organisations. Financial rewards are also assumed to be the most motivating, however research shows that money is low on the list when creating a positive company culture of motivation and engagement.


A recent study performed by UK-based consultancy Great Place to Work, found that the top components for a positive workplace are:

Value-aligned actions

  • Teamwork
  • Work environment (physical)
  • Recognition


We all want to know the value we add to our workplace and be shown respect for a job well done. However, when we acknowledge individual work performance without recognising the efforts of the team that supported this achievement, we are at risk of creating dissonance and incohesive team dynamics. This is not to say that people who have gone above and beyond should not be rewarded; however, as shown in the list above, team work is higher up in the hierarchy when creating a positive workplace.


Your end of year function provides the perfect opportunity to reward those individuals who have shown excellence, while also recognising and celebrating the successes of teams and managers. Team events offer an opportunity for people to feel united and recognised, thus building stronger bonds and organisational commitment. The result of which will not only affect individual and team well-being, but will in turn lead to long-term bottom line benefits.


Another important element of an impactful end of year team event is to take time to acknowledge your company’s shortcomings and hardships. This year has been challenging for many companies with the economic strain and an even more digitally distracted society – to neglect this fact would be foolish.


So, when celebrating the achievements of your company this year, don’t forget to acknowledge, (without blame) the problems and weaknesses your teams have had to overcome and where you have shown perseverance. Recognise those people who have shown resilience and creative problem-solving during challenging times. This form of honesty can show your employees the values of a company that is learning and can begin to build a culture of honesty, resilience and forward-thinking. This will not only take a weight off the chest of those responsible, but will bring forth a sense of company unity.


Lastly, with the value of honesty at the forefront of any healthy company, it is important to note that recognition need not be in the form of work accomplishments only. Reflect on everyone’s unique talents and personality traits that have had a positive impact on the performance of the company. When people are acknowledged for their enthusiasm, positive outlook or calm approach to problem-solving, they gain a greater sense of value in their role in the company. Your company is your people and all that they encompass in and outside of their specified work tasks, and when people are recognised for their unique and innate abilities, their self-esteem will grow, and a strengths-based culture will arise.


So, when planning your team event to end off the year, don’t forget its true purpose: To reflect on the good and the bad of the year, to celebrate the value of each employee and last but not least, to have fun while boosting team morale, and inspiring your positive company culture.


Effective leaders have a wingman

The military has a strict hierarchy of ranks, followed by no-nonsense discipline, rules and structure. These are perhaps aspects that a leader secretly wishes they had in their team. Nevertheless, the concept of a wingman intrigued me. There is no intent to be gender specific here and turn a wingman into a wingwoman; it’s more the concept that I want to share with you.

In the military, in particular as a jet fighter pilot, you never fly solo, but always with a wingman at your side. Think about the famous Hollywood movie Top Gun. A wingman is someone who you trust unconditionally to protect you from disaster and even death.

In the work environment, the possibility of death is not that high, but it may be depending on your industry. A wingman is a person who is by your side, looks out for you, makes you aware of risks you may not see, communicates what you need to know, and someone you can trust with your life. The result is that you are stronger together and will have a greater chance of success and survival.

You may be equating a wingman to having a best friend at work, but it’s much more powerful than that. Truth be told, you don’t have to like your wingman, get along with them personally or even want to socialise with them. With a wingman there is a higher regard of respect and a shared goal. This is something that you may have the same with a best working friend, but that’s more the exception than the norm.

Then why is it that as leaders we often fly solo without a wingman at our side? Think about the executive leadership or management level in a company. There are more likely to be many solo flyers than fighter pilots with wingmen by their side. Perhaps these concepts can’t be compared, as they may not be similar, but they may be? Wouldn’t you benefit from having a wingman by your side who you could count on no matter what? Someone who gives you honest feedback that you need to hear, as opposed to what you want to hear. What about the wingman that knows your strengths and weaknesses so well that they can make an objective assessment? Being a wingman isn’t an easy job and requires character traits of integrity, honesty, commitment, discipline, focus, transparency and fairness. You have to demonstrate these to be able to receive them from others. And herein lies the caveat: as leaders we don’t like to show vulnerability, we prefer not to count on others and do things by ourselves, we need to uphold a tough image, and also, we’re so busy that we don’t really have the time to watch out for others.

Let’s take it a step further. As an effective leader, are you a wingman to your team? Do you support them when they need it, and do you trust them to perform the work? Being mindful that a wingman doesn’t fly next to you all the time, only when you need them and they see when you’re in danger. When they see that you’re safe, able and competent they’ll comfortably allow you to fly solo.

I’ll leave you one thought: with a wingman by your side you could be raising that success bar. Think about what it would take to implement this concept in your leaders and/or teams?

Five ways to motivate employees

Five ways to motivate employees

A numb form of attention on the task at hand, a loss of commitment to the outcome, and a reduced effort and a drop in productivity. Does this sound familiar?

These are just a few of the characteristics of amotivation – a place where neither internal nor external drivers can push our actions towards reaching a goal. If you or your employees have experienced amotivation or a milder version, you will know that the impact of this can be detrimental to company outcomes and employee well-being.

Poor employee motivation has been associated with reduced productivity, poor outcomes and an increased risk of psychological dysfunction and job dissatisfaction. However, the workplace is a challenging environment for maintaining motivation, as many managers will know.

Having a clearer understanding of the types of motivation, their benefits, and the ways in which to build it, could be just what you need to shape the healthy, happy and successful team and business that you are looking for.

Unpacking Motivation: Why Money is Not Enough

The workplace is a complex environment and it’s not always easy to understand human motivation. The main reason for this is that there are two types of motivation:

  • Controlled Motivation: this is when our behaviours are performed because of external pressures. This can be positive – for recognition and reward, or negative-for meeting demands, fear of rejection or being fired.
  • Autonomous Motivation: this is when our behaviours are driven from our own volition, either for the pure joy of the activity or for the perceived value that activity provides us.

In the workplace, there is an inherent understanding that work is done for remuneration. Employees are paid for their time, efforts and outcomes, which implies that the motivation behind working is inherently external. This becomes complicated when managers see motivation dwindle, and want to provide another form of financial incentive to get motivation back in their employees. The truth however is that humans require much more than money to be motivated, engaged and satisfied.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) proposed that we have basic needs which require satisfaction before we can experience physical and psychological health. This reputed thinking was built into the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a comprehensive theory of human motivation. When it comes to motivation, SDT proposes three basic needs which drive our behaviour:

  • Autonomy: our desire to be independent and have control of our circumstances
  • Competence: our desire for mastery and skill development
  • Relatedness: the need to feel connected and belong to a social group

It is therefore clear to see why money alone cannot satisfy our basic psychological needs and provide the motivation necessary to build an engaged team of employees.

The Benefits of Autonomous versus Controlled Motivation

In order for employees to be, and stay, engaged and committed to their work, they require motivation. In the workplace, there are inherent external drivers which guide people to perform, and it is common practice for many managers to further feed into controlled motivation through creating incentives, rewards and mitigating demands. However, research shows that when there is a greater ratio of autonomous motivation to controlled motivation, employees are more persistent, have increased performance and show greater creativity and innovation.

Other benefits of autonomous motivation include:

  • Increased psychological well-being
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Increased work engagement
  • Increased organisational commitment

But how can you increase autonomous motivation while still reaching the end goal and meeting deadlines?

The truth is that once employees feel that they are progressing in their career (Competence), are supported to make decisions for which they can take ownership (Autonomy), and feel that they belong to the team (Relatedness), they will feel driven about their work, and will experience satisfaction while reaching the goals of the organisation.

Five ways to increase autonomous employee motivation

Motivation can be a difficult challenge for managers, especially when employee productivity is low. However, with these approaches, managers can begin to build autonomous motivation rather than creating greater controls and external pressures for employees in the hopes of reaching outcomes.

  • Be an example

As the manager, you are an example of the company’s culture and systems. If you choose to take a more transformational leadership approach to get your employees motivated, you will notice the same shift in yourself. Find what it is that drives your passion and perseverance in your work, take ownership of what you would like to happen and run with it. And lastly, allow your employees to build an emotional relationship with you – when you belong so will they.

  • Inspire

Offer positive stories of your own or others’ success. Be clear and communicate the values and mission of the company, thus building inspiration and bringing alignment of your employees’ values to the company as a whole. When people are in concordance with the values of the company, they will automatically gain a greater sense of commitment and become more intrinsically motivated to reach the strategic outcomes of the company.

  • Reward efforts not outcomes

This approach can be challenging in the workplace as success is driven by outputs. However, taking a mastery over performance stance when looking at employee productivity can help to develop a greater sense of competence. In turn, building employees to feel a sense of mastery before the task is even completed. This will increase autonomous motivation as the task is being performed for the joy of it rather than the perceived consequences of delivery.

  • Intellectually Stimulate

Despite what you may believe, people like challenges. Everyone enjoys a walk in the park, but the greater desire to learn and master new skills will eventually outweigh ease. Being a manager comes with a great responsibility to mediate job demands to get the “sweet spot” for your staff. This is an ongoing process; however, if there is the opportunity for employees to learn, develop and master new skills, they will not only satisfy their need for competence, but will feel a greater sense of commitment to the future of the job.

  • Support Collective Enthusiasm

There are two main areas which affect an employee’s sense of job satisfaction – job demands and job resources. As the manager, however, there can be little flexibility in mitigating the job demands, and therefore a shift in perceived job resources can be a vital role to play for your employees. It is basic physics – resources need to outweigh demands in order for success to be enabled. When employees feel supported, individually as well as part of a team, their psychological resources for success increase which reduces the impact of job demands on energy and well-being.

In Closing

People spend at least 33% of the week at work, doing what they were hired to do. If employees are demotivated this can become a draining exercise, for the individual, the team and company. While motivation in the grander sense is important, when we begin to unpack it, we see that having autonomous, intrinsic motivation serves us greater than that of controlled, extrinsic motivation. Therefore, if improved, sustainable motivation is needed in your team, autonomous motivation is highly necessary and can be developed.

The five approaches offered above provide a springboard to start driving success and satisfaction in your team. Where will you start?


What we know and what we don’t know about engagement

The engagement concept has become a workplace buzzword over the past seven years. Every organisation wants the best part of their workforce to be fully or semi engaged, and less disengaged. However, many attempts have failed to create this shift, and our engagement levels remain at around 13 to 19 percent. This means that a lot of employees are disengaged at work. So, what are we missing?

We know a lot about engagement, and equally are left with many unanswered questions. There are so many definitions of the term “engagement”. There’s a very definite lack of consensus of what truly engagement is, what factors make it up, or how to practically measure it. Some people refer to engagement as employee engagement, while others as job or work engagement. There are several words all referring to the same thing, but it’s confusing when there isn’t an overarching consensus. This is a huge problem, but one that is often overlooked and brushed aside because that’s for the researchers to dwell on – as leaders we just want to have engaged employees.

Engagement is not an old concept. In 1990, Dr William A. Kahn, a professor of Organisational Behaviour at Boston University, was the first researcher who spoke about the word personal engagement when he contemplated how much a person brings of themselves to their work tasks and performance. He was way ahead of the curve and nobody was interested in the topic back then.

After that, no one spoke about engagement for 12 years, until 2002 when it reappeared as being the opposite to burnout. This development can be seen as reasonable, but it still didn’t explain the factors that make up engagement. And again, there was no traction on the topic until in 2010 when it started becoming a management and organisation buzzword.

Engagement is believed to have many benefits to both the individual and the organisation. Some of the benefits have been scientifically validated, and others widely speculated on. We would like to ask leaders and organisations to be cautious when rolling out an engagement strategy because it requires planning, thought and dedication. A hasty, unclear strategic plan can do more harm to employee happiness than is often anticipated.

Some facts to consider are:

  1. Engagement isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. You don’t DO engagement, you become actively engaged with your activities and tasks. Engagement is who you are and become as an organisation, similar to your culture.
  2. Define what engagement means in your organisation and perhaps write down some examples.
  3. Be specific about what the benefits, rewards and recognition for becoming more engaged are for employees. You are expecting more input from your workforce, which means that you have to be transparent and reciprocate fairly.
  4. We take the worldview that engagement is a positive construct from which the individual and the organisation will benefit. But, what if it doesn’t have such a tremendous benefit for the individual? What about when going the extra mile brings their work-life out of kilter and negatively affects their personal relationships?
  5. Let’s be considerate. Not every human being has the physical or psychological ability to operate at high levels of engagement. There could be limitations and illnesses to consider, and they are doing their best every day, albeit that the organisation doesn’t see it as good enough.
  6. Lastly, is engagement the utopia solution we are making it to be? Is it the be-all and end-all where the individual and organisation has a perfect win-win? Is this approach realistic?

Please don’t get me wrong! I am an avid supporter and lobbyist for employee engagement in the workplace. However, I want to challenge you to think about the engagement concept from a long-term moral and ethical angle before you go ahead and quickly roll out something that will make employees happy.