More than half of UK white-collar staff work in a culture where arriving at work early, staying late and being seen to put in long hours is seen as proof of career commitment, research by insurance company PruHealth says.
However, levels of productivity tend to be left out of the equation. The result is often boredom, lack of motivation and willingness to pass the day in time-wasting activities such as shopping online or emailing friends. Another survey of office workers by holiday firm Thomas Cook found staff can waste up to an average of two-and-a-half hours a day surfing the internet. This was borne out by the experience of Neath Port Talbot CBC, which recently sacked three members of staff who were spending two hours a day on ebay.
Graham Jones, head of strategic personnel at the council, says it has since drawn up clearer guidelines for staff. “There is a blurring of the edges between work and home life now, but we now have introduced a policy in which staff can use internet sites for shopping, property and so on before 8.30am, at lunchtime and after five,” he says.
“What we wanted was to have clarity about what is acceptable, but also to develop a mature relationship with our staff, most of whom work hard and are excellent.”
‘Presenteeism’ is defined as being present at work but doing the minimum while there. Problems arise because staff feel that as long as they are visible it does not matter how much they achieve. A lack of motivation can spiral into deliberately killing or wasting time.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancashire University Management School, invented the term and sees it as a creeping malaise in the UK.
“You may think being at work for long periods will enhance your career prospects, but it will actually create problems for you,” he says. “Your performance will ultimately suffer if you have no rest and recreation, and no outside life. Problems will also be created in other areas of your life.”
Angela O’Connor, executive director HR (policing) at the National Policing Improvement Agency, supports the measures taken by Neath Port Talbot. “I have every respect for their decision. They have shown there is a line that cannot be crossed,” she says.
But, as a general rule, she believes that when staff are putting in long hours to little effect, poor management may be to blame. “Presenteeism is often caused by managers not setting a good example. I work long hours, but I always take my holidays, and I work at home when I need to. I am flexible with staff, and they are flexible with me.”
Trust is the key to motivating your team, she believes. “I expect a lot from my team, but I don’t know where they are on any given day, and I don’t care as long as the work is getting done. You have to treat people as adults, and they will behave as adults.”
Presenteeism can be an equal opportunities issue, she points out, as it discriminates against anyone with caring responsibilities.
“When I had young children, I used to leave early but work in the evenings. And when I did a job share, I worked full-time hours so that no one could say I wasn’t pulling my weight.” But often, such behind-the-scenes activities go unmarked and women miss out on promotion.
Whatever the ill effects of presenteeism, individual managers can’t be held accountable for the behaviour of staff.
The right management systems have to be in place, according to Fran Wilson, HR advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.
One way of dealing with presenteeism is to look at creative ways of increasing staff engagement, she suggests. Lazy management can sap the energy of an organisation. “For example, don’t give all the interesting work to the same people all the time,” she suggests.
“Presenteeism stems from the performance management style of the organisation. If people are judged on input and output, there is no need to put in long hours. Staff can work flexibly as long as they achieve their objectives.”