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.


Match team building exercises to the team’s needs

Building high performing teams doesn’t come easily. Before you reach that optimal level, there will be loads of blood, sweat and tears! There are so many elements that we often forget, or don’t think about. Most leaders are aware of things like articulating the common team purpose, clarifying roles and responsibilities, providing resources, and regular feedback, etc. that go with inspiring a team – these components are essential, but don’t necessarily build team spirit, morale and fun. Building a team into a vibrant and energised unit should be filled with joy and fun for both the leader and the team members.

You may be asking yourself how so?

We learn through laughter and having fun, and it also helps us to get to know each other. To do this, team building exercises are the ideal tool. I can see some of you cringing at the thought of going to some remote place to spend the day drumming, hanging off a rope, paint balling, shooting or rock climbing. There is definitely a time and place for those fun activities; some outdoor activities might be linked to a deeper purpose of addressing an underlying team challenge such as low communication, lack of trust, accountability or collaboration. What do you want to address or achieve? Being aware that team building exercises should align with where the team is at, i.e. is it a newly formed team, an established team going through a rough patch, or a team that has experienced a failure and needs a boost.

Here are practical team building exercises for each team stage.

Newly formed teams spend time sussing each other out. They are observing others to establish who they like and who they don’t, which person they can trust, who the inherent team leader is, and how they can be accepted into the team. In the beginning stage, a team needs exercises that assist and support this “getting to know each other” process.

* Truth or Lie – Each team member introduces themselves to the team by saying their name and then one fact about themselves that is either true or false. The other team members have to decide if the statement is true or a lie. Depending on the size of the team, you can repeat this game three or four times. It breaks the ice and allows people to get to know one another in a fun way.

* Blind Drawing – Seat two people back-to-back on chairs. Give one a pen and a piece of paper and the other a picture of a simple image. The person holding the picture has to describe the image to the other person without using any of words associated with the image.. The other person has to draw the image based on what he or she hears. This team building exercise is ideal for enhancing communication skills and collaboration.

Established teams who have been together for a while may get accustomed to each other to such an extent that they will understand one another without too much communication. The potential downfall is that the team may operate in their comfort zone without stretching or challenging each other’s thinking.

* Barter Puzzle – This exercise is best for small teams of up to 16 people. Divide the teams into three or four equal sized groups. Each group receives a different jigsaw puzzle of the same difficulty level to complete. The aim is to complete the puzzle in the fastest time. However, some pieces are mixed up with another team’s and they will desperately need those missing pieces to finish the puzzle first. Collectively as a team they will need to agree on how to barter for those pieces.

* Flow Moments – This is a more serious activity, where everybody shares activities and tasks where they lose total track of time. These will be moments where the challenge and the stimulation meet each other at a sweet spot. Share these moments and chat about how everyone can have them more often which will transform the team’s performance and bring in a magical fresh energy.

Every team experiences a low point where all energy and performance has been drained because of an unexpected mistake that was made. This mistake will have knocked the wind out of the team’s mojo. How and why the mistake occurred is not relevant, but what is important is to allow the team a time to “mope” and lick their wounds and thereafter the onus is on the leader to shift gears and get the team firing on all cylinders. Two team building exercises for this stage are:

* Strengths finder – Give the team a pack of blank cards, and ask each team member to write down one strength on each card that they feel the team has. In the end, collect all the cards and tally them up to show which are the most common strengths. The team must then discuss how they can bring alive what’s natural to them.

* Savouring – Taking Post-it® notes, let each team member write down up to three projects that the team was involved in where they delivered a phenomenal job. Remind the team of past successes and collect evidence so that they can and will experience these moments again which will help them to savour the past and move positively into the future.

In closing, team building exercises are important to build team spirit be it in a newly formed or experienced team. They shake up the energy, bring in fun and laughter, enhance team collaboration, open discussions on unpleasant topics, and stimulate innovative thinking.

Try it!

If you would like more ideas and exercises, or for us to build up happiness in your workplace, contact us at info@4seeds.co.za

The four steps to achieving goals

The four steps to achieving goals

The working environment is extremely goal and output orientated. Leaders often ask for things to be done or specify goals to be attained within a predetermined timeline. They may share some words of advice or make suggestions, but after that it’s up to the employee to figure out the planning process and actions needed to get the job done. That’s all well and good if the employee knows how to perform the entire task. If we look at the action diagram, it’s apparent that there are core phases to the process of goal-attainment.

Phase 1: Goal transfer and development

The goal has most likely been set by the leader and is an organisational goal and an external task request. The employee must convert this external task to an internal one for themselves. It’s often a process where the employee must figure out how to transform the goal into something that has meaning and value to them. If the employee can redefine the task, then we can move on to phase 2. However, if this is not possible, then procrastination is likely to set in as the concept of “what’s in it for me” is not satisfied.

Phase 2: Planning

The most important phase. The goal is split into specific steps that follow certain sequences. It’s important to be clear on what actions are needed and when to progress towards the goal; perhaps visually drawing the flow of actions to be performed and by when. The visual view enables one to identify order and challenges. Each item can be further broken down into sub-sections such as resources needed, ordering of items, delivery time, communication with a team member, etc. to prevent bottle necks.

Phase 3: Execution and action

This is where execution and action of the planning stage takes shape. We are now moving into physical doing and creating momentum in the various tasks. People might jump into this phase and do the planning as they go along. It might work, but it might severely backfire as challenges that may be encountered along the way are not taken into consideration.

Phase 4: Feedback

Feedback is required to establish the progress made, and if there has been any deviation from the goal. The feedback comes from two streams: the external environment such as the leader or others and one’s own internal self-evaluation. Positive feedback will encourage one to continue with the action plan. Negative feedback, if delivered correctly, should motivate one to review and assess the process and to modify actions and then move towards the goal.

Herein lies the challenge! Very few people learn this process. We just assume that everyone knows how to convert goals for personal meaning, planning, action and reassessment processes. Think about it, it’s a learned life skill which is not necessarily taught in schools, colleges or universities. Some people have tried and didn’t get it right, and eventually gave up. There is a struggle to commit to goals, and it’s easy to give up and get distracted, which results in procrastination and leaders will therefore become frustrated with the employee.

The suggestion we have is for leaders to not take work tasks away from struggling employees, but rather to train and teach them the cognitive skills to devise plans that enable them to meet goals. Assisting employees to understand and identify problems effectively will bear phenomenal fruit in the long term. Don’t assume people know how to plan. Empower employees to be the initiator of their own goals and actions.


Goal transfer and development
Execute and action









Motivation is not only up to the leader

Motivating employees is an art and a science that causes despair for leaders. Motivating a person to commit and complete a task because they want to as opposed to because they have to, brings about completely different performance results. Different motivation theories have been developed that provide us with some insight as to what motivates people. The scope is wide and varies from fulfilling a need, achieving a goal, being recognised, receiving more responsibility, acquiring financial rewards, and strengthening one’s self-efficacy.

Reading through the list, one might want them all. That’s where it starts to become complex, because each of the things require different behaviours from both the leader and the organisation to stimulate motivation. In addition, we have primary motivation drivers such as receiving feedback and recognition, and secondary motivators like building self-efficacy. The secondary motivators are nice-to-haves, but not must-haves. Each employee has a different motivation make-up and leaders must remember and stimulate these all the time. Not an easy job!

We often focus solely on the individual employee when speaking about motivation, but the organisation as a whole also plays a significant role. People value fairness, equality and justice, and breaking these is very often a key demotivating factor that is overlooked. Inequality causes employees’ extreme dissatisfaction and emotional tension which has a link to motivation and performance. Inequality is a psychological state that arises when employees compare themselves to others. Comparison is a natural human behaviour that we engage in all the time, or more than is good for us. On the other hand, fairness relates to the distribution of rewards and the procedure by which rewards are allocated. A discrepancy, even if not intended, creeps in when reward policies or employee performances are not transparent or fairly substantiated. For example, employees with salary structures are not equally aligned because of tenure, but the same level of skill and qualification or benefits that were present at the time of employment have subsequently fallen away.

A clear case of distribution injustice is experienced by the employee, and is fuelled by inequality when comparing themselves to others. The demotivation that arises is based on a negative rewards experience that might be labelled as purposeful or intentional. If the situation is not addressed, the employee’s behaviour will change to either:

  1. Increasing input contribution with the aim of increasing productivity value and reward
  2. Changing output by seeking additional rewards from the work
  3. Withdrawing by being late or absent
  4. Permanently leaving the organisation

All forms of injustice and inequality have a direct impact on job satisfaction, job performance, engagement, and employee motivation. Organisations as a whole can support and assist leaders to manage employee motivation in an inspiring way.


Distrust diminishes the bottom line

Distrust diminishes the bottom line

Teams produce synergies that individuals can’t, either from a capacity or an ability factor. Working side by side, collaborating, sharing ideas, finding solutions, and supporting one another is what team members should be doing, and most of the time yearn to do. However, if two or more people work together, an element creeps in that has a significant impact on a team’s performance levels – it’s something called TRUST.

Trust, a word with much gravitas and impact, but also one that we often leave entirely on its own to develop. Trust is a psychological state in which we expect positive actions and behaviour from others to a commitment made. In short, trust is doing what we promised to do, or even said we would do, every time. We trust people based on their regular, consistent behaviour, and then label them as trustworthy when they meet our expectations.

In teams, trust means that people are willing to be vulnerable which results in co-operative working with one another. Trust reduces conflict because people are comfortable and confident to express opposing values and opinions. It allows for team participation, sharing of knowledge and information, innovation and builds social bonds.

Distrust is counterproductive and carries an intangible cost for the organisation as a whole. Time is wasted by dealing with hidden agendas, unproductive meetings, incomplete work and miscommunication, or micro-managing people. We don’t trust our teams which results in leaders visibly performing control checks. Distrust slows down the wheels of effectiveness and efficiency. For employees, it zaps all their psychological and cognitive energy, so much so that they become disengaged and lack motivation. It creates clicks of people which need to be managed and can even escalate to such a level that people leave. Distrust eats away at the bottom line, but too often we allow it to continue.

If you acknowledge that trust is not present in your team, what do you need to do?

  1. Be the exemplary role-model by doing what you promised to do and within the set timeline.
  2. Have conversations with the team on the concept of “How would we all benefit if we under promised and over delivered?”.
  3. Be courageous and tackle conflict topics together and have transparent conversations.
  4. Introduce the rule where people present their ideas in meetings, rather than about them in their absence.
  5. Care for others in a genuine and sincere way; share life and work stories with one another.
  6. Set clear expectations by clarifying roles, tasks and commitment dates.

Trust is broken quickly and requires a lot of energy and time to rebuild. In some extreme cases, the damage is so severe that it cannot be fixed. Build trust with your teams – it’s what leaders do to have happy, productive followers.