What is the risk of presenteeism in Hong Kong?

By Robert Half on 8 October 2022

Presenteeism has many hidden costs and far reaching effects. In fact, coming to work while you’re sick has been proven to be more damaging than absenteeism (lack of attendance at work) despite considerable awareness and taboo around this habit.

According to a survey conducted by Bupa Hong Kong, 90% of respondents were sick in the past year, with 68% still admitting they went to work. The Bupa research also revealed that nearly 80% of millennials (aged 23-34) surveyed experienced presenteeism, which is substantially higher than the average of 68%.

With this in mind it’s critical that business leaders in Hong Kong recognise the signs and take action for the betterment of their entire organisation.

The hidden costs

Unlike absenteeism, where it is clear when staff aren’t at work, the signs of presenteeism are often not as apparent, and as such are harder to identify and measure. According to researching by Virgin Pulse, presenteeism can lead to 57.5 days in lost productivity to a company (almost three months), compared to 4 days lost on average to absenteeism.

Presenteeism can create direct and indirect costs for you and your organisation. Employees who persist with coming to work while unwell are likely to be less productive than those who are fit, well and rested, resulting in diminished productivity. Bupa Hong Kong reported that employees spent approximately a quarter of total working days working whilst sick, causing a productivity loss worth over HK$30.6 billion - which according to the HKTDC Research accounts for approximately 1.3% of Hong Kong's total GDP.

Without much needed rest and leave, employees may take longer to recover from being sick, resulting in prolonged periods of ill health. Sick employees also pose a health risk to their colleagues as they may be contagious and could spread their illness. Should your employees have regular contact with external stakeholders or clients, then this risk could also extend further.

The indirect or lesser-known costs associated with presenteeism relate to reduced productivity and output at a broader, organisation level, and the implications of reduced efficacy over time. These are often financial considerations according to the Centre for International Economics, and they are significant ones.

Whether direct or indirect, it’s important that employers and employees acknowledge the risks of presenteeism collectively, so that an understanding is greater and solutions are put in place as quickly as possible.

The causes of presenteeism

Like the hidden costs of presenteeism, the causes are also manifold. Being consistently present at work when unwell may be as a result of:

  • Employees being overworked and teams understaffed or under-resourced
  • Pressure from colleagues or other staff members to come to work
  • Fear of disciplinary action from management if sick leave is taken
  • Stress arising from personal or professional circumstances
  • Personal financial pressure, and a need to save or “bank” sick leave
  • Poor personal health and inadequate work-life balance
  • Chronic illness

Some causes, such as employees feeling overworked or being genuinely under-resourced, are more easily remedied by you as the employer than say, chronic illness or poor personal health. However, it is possible and important to create a work environment that is tolerant, respectful and open for all employees.

What can you do to reduce presenteeism, and keep staff healthy?

There are many easy and effective ways to ensure that your workforce plan provides a safe environment, but they also need to know and feel that this is the case.

A safe and open workplace is little good to an employee who has no idea of the resources and support available to them. Hence why education is critical. Educating every employee about your organisation’s leave policy and debunking any perceptions that this leave shouldn’t be taken is a good place to start. This should be accompanied by regular conversations with your employees, both as a team and one-on-one, and keeping dialogue open and transparent. This will help you better understand your employees’ diverse needs and circumstances.

In addition to open conversations, offering flexible work hours where possible will encourage staff to pursue the work styles and hours that are available to them in times of need. If employees believe that their employer is considerate of their needs, employees can work free from fear of discipline and undertake their work duties without diminishing productivity.

A healthy office is a productive office

Creating a work environment in Hong Kong where employees at all levels feel secure and able to discuss their needs for flexibility is key to being aware of, and reducing presenteeism within your organisation.

With employee wellbeing being central to their satisfaction and engagement at work, placing value on this will ensure you’re an astute and responsive employer.

Learn from Robert Half’s expert recruiters so you can build a talented team of employees or advance your career. Operating in over 300 locations worldwide and as one of the top recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, Robert Half can provide you with assistance where and when you need it.

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