We all know what absenteeism is: not being at work when you’re supposed to be (or in class, or in church, or wherever you’re supposed to be). Bosses often fret about absenteeism. “Calling in ‘sick’? That costs me money! Get your butt in that chair!

But if there’s absenteeism, then of course there’s presenteeism, right?

Yes, right. I didn’t make this up.

And what is presenteeism?

You may think it’s being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, or even going the extra mile and being there longer (and therefore being more productive) than required. And indeed it has been used in those senses in the past. But that’s not the prevailing current use. Today, as you will find if you Google it, presenteeism refers to showing up for work (or class, or whatever) when you really shouldn’t – because you’re not well enough, physically, mentally, or both.

And why would people come to work when they’re too sick to work? See above about what bosses say. See also our general cultural attitude towards productivity, or at least seeming to be productive. And also see your employer’s sick day policy… if there is one. Many people would be risking their jobs to take as many sick days as they truly need. Many more would be risking their career advancement.

So we show up. We surrender to the boxtickery of attendance counting. We know that business is not charity, it’s ass-in-chair-ity. If, on any given day, we just can’t even, then we switch off the even-canning machine for a while and try to look busy. And if that’s not an option, we work ten hours to get six hours’ worth of work done, we collapse at home with a glass of wine and a goblet of headache, and tomorrow we go back, Jack, and do it again. Because that is how we display our virtue.

And if we have a cold, we tough it out, because we don’t want to waste a sick day on that. So what if coworkers would get it – they’ll all get colds anyway. So what if it takes longer to get over it – I mean, do you know that for sure? Just take some medication. And if we have a flu, we try to tough it out because we have work that we’ll still have to do even if we take the day off. And if we have, say, Covid… um, could I lose my job if I call in and say I have it? If I get tested and find out I have it, I’m off work and locked down for 14 days, right, and…

Presenteeism, notably including forced presenteeism (of the “show up or you’re fired” kind), is known to be a factor in the spread of contagious illnesses. But even when it’s just a case of people not being in top form, it can be a bigger problem than most people want to admit. Even if you just look at dollar values in productivity – as though people are made for the economy, rather than the economy for people – research indicates that presenteeism costs about ten times as much in lost productivity every year as absenteeism. Presenteeism has been very well studied and the results show strongly that it’s an important problem. But bosses tend to like simple, easy measures, and things that they can see, and butts in chairs at desks are a much more visible and straightforward measure than relative losses in productivity due to working while unwell. Also there’s that whole Protestant Work Ethic thing and the valorization of “toughing it out” in popular entertainments.

We’ve had this word presenteeism at least since the 1930s, though the current sense that features the downside has been prevalent only in the past few decades. It’s formed, as you’d guess, in contrast to absenteeism, rather than being made from a word presentee that is in turn made from present plus ee. Absenteeism was formed around 1820 from absentee, which has been in English since the 1500s, borrowed from Norman French abscenté and referring first of all to someone who owned an estate but, contrary to expectation or requirement, didn’t reside on it.

For years, when I was on salary and got four sick days per year, it was a point of personal pride for me to take only one or none each year. A cold? No problem – I’ll get through it. I finally realized that I would get through the cold sooner, do more and better work when I was at work, and not get my coworkers sick if I took a day off to stay home and drink lots of fluids and so on. If I went to work, I was just borrowing on the future anyway.

So if you’re in less-than-top form, if you at all can, call in sick for a day (or more) and take care of yourself. There’s no time like the present not to be a presentee. (And if you’re a boss, stop assuming your employees are just out to cheat you, and for heaven’s sake don’t do asinine things like requiring a doctor’s note for every sick day, which just costs the system, takes time from the person’s recovery, and probably forces them to go to a doctor’s office, where they will be surrounded by sick people and might pick up yet another illness to spread around your office…)

4 responses to “presenteeism

  1. This is a very timely topic. It reminds me that the actual source of the word “sabotage” is Sabbath. That is, to treat a workday as if it were the Sabbath. There is no semantic connection to old wooden shoes. French sabot is merely a near homonym.

    • Do you have a reference for that? OED does connect “sabotage” to “sabot.” Etymon online notes that connection but disputes the old story about throwing shoes into the machinery, but OED does seem to support it. I haven’t seen the connection to Sabbath.

      • I interpret your last sentence to mean you “haven’t seen [anyone else make] the connection to Sabbath.” To the best of my knowledge and belief, I may be the first person to do so.

        With the exception of relatively modern words (such as the names for newer chemical elements) where the creator of the word explains its derivation, all etymologies are educated guesses. Most of the etymologies you will find in dictionaries are correct. But a few are outrageous. Examples:

        “Muscle” is not derived from Latin musculus (a small mouse) despite the fact that Greek pontiki is now a homonym that means both muscle and mouse. “Muscle” is related to words like mass (weight) and massage. If you lift weights, you will develop your muscles. If you have a lot of muscle, you can life/pull a lot of weight. It is cognate with Hebrew MiShKaL = weight.

        “Cabal” is not from Hebrew Kabbalah = received (esoteric knowledge). It is related to Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, and probably influenced by Hebrew het-bet-resh = to join (as in a group).

        “Gossamer” is totally unrelated to goose + summer. It is from Latin gossypium = cotton + mare = sea. That is, the sea foam that washes ashore, the most gossamer substance you can imagine. Gossypium is probably derived from Goshen, the area of Egypt from which cotton was exported.

  2. This might be as good a place as any to note the conflicting use of “calling in sick” versus “calling out sick.” I never knew the latter was a thing until recently.

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