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Tackling presenteeism in the workplace

Do you know what presenteeism is and how to deal with it? Learn about the effects of mental health on employees and what you can do to create a happier, healthier workplace.
Published 16 Oct 2021
Updated 29 Sep 2022
6 min read
Signs of Poor Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace

The mental wellbeing of your employees is central to the happiness of your work environment.

Having mentally unwell employees in your workplace can have serious implications for the unwell employee in question, the wellbeing of other employees and business output.

Why is employee mental health important?

Poor employee wellbeing will likely come from non-work-related issues. This means that personal stressors can transfer to the workplace. It’s imperative that you as an employer can first detect signs of poor mental health.

Second, it’s important that you’re equipped with the skills to handle or prevent such issues from occurring at work. This is not as easy as it sounds.

That’s why the team at Employment Hero have come up with two key areas for you to take note of – presenteeism and misconduct in the workplace.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is the lack of or reduced productivity your staff shows when working from home or the office. This is a direct result of coming to work with an illness or injury. It’s likely at some point in time that most of us have gone to work not feeling our best.

Many of us have done this when feeling mentally unwell or exhausted. It’s thought that doing so limits our capacity to work by more than 50%. This is unhealthy for both employees and employers, costing Australian businesses around $6.1 billion a year.

The two types of presenteeism

Presenteeism can be broken down into two categories.

The first and most common is employees that work the required amount of hours but do so inefficiently.

The second is workaholics that exceed their working commitments, and by working extra hours, it jeopardises the impact they could make if they adhered to their hourly requirements.

Both types share a common enemy. Being unproductive on the job is a result of employees carrying around unhealthy baggage from their personal life.

In saying this, turning up to work could indicate that your employee is going through the motions of their routine, or attempting to ease their mind off personal concerns.

What are the signs of presenteeism in the workplace?

So what are the signs you should look for to determine whether presenteeism is an issue in your workplace? A lack of motivation, uncharacteristic errors and disengagement from employees are three key areas.


Have you ever noticed a lack of enthusiasm or urgency about your staff members? Chances are they aren’t feeling motivated. You may presume that their behaviour is a direct result of being unhappy with their job.

However, this may not always be the case. A lack of motivation at work may be a direct result of your employee’s personal stressors coming to fruition. This spillover effect may be more prominent for those who are working from home, notably since the COVID-19 outbreak.

You may also find that your employees look distracted or disoriented. A behavioural outcome of this might involve employees staring into space more often than engaging with work content.

As a result, you may find that your employees aren’t meeting performance objectives. They may also be taking unnecessary breaks. Whilst frequent breaks are beneficial for mental and physical wellbeing, unexplained breaks that don’t enhance productivity are unpurposeful.

Uncharacteristically error-prone

Making errors on the job can be an important part of employee learning and development. However, uncharacteristic errors aren’t so forgiving. These errors are likely made during routine tasks, and would’ve been avoided if the correct procedures were carried out.

The consequences of these uncharacteristic and avoidable errors are more costly in some professions than others. For instance, a nurse that prescribes the wrong medication to a patient could lead to undesirable or even fatal consequences.

Less costly would be a barista serving a customer a flat white instead of a cappuccino. Regardless, these errors are costly to your clients, customers and your own business.

Low employee engagement

Interacting and connecting with work colleagues is characteristic of a healthy workforce. Employee engagement can revolve around helping one another with work or being supportive of their personal issues. These interactions however can become absent in the workplace culture if your employees are displaying presenteeism.

Employees feeling experiencing poor health and are facing mental health problems may isolate themselves from everyone in the office. In doing so, they may be less talkative in team meetings and in one-on-one conversations. You may notice that they ask less questions than usual or are less responsive to others in conversation.

Their ability to listen may also be compromised given their lack of engagement with other team members. Misunderstandings in communication could lead to frustration between team members, furthering unproductivity and costly errors.

How to tackle presenteeism in the workplace

You’re probably wondering how you can handle or prevent presenteeism from occuring in the first place. There are numerous approaches you can take.

Knowing your employees, having an open door policy and offering wellbeing programs are three ways to do so.

Know your employees

There are two ways which you can get to know your employees. Firstly, you can get to know them personally through direct communication. Secondly, you can monitor their wellbeing through employee happiness surveys.

Pro tip: Use an employee engagement solution to send out employee surveys digitally and efficiently.

As an employer, it’s important that you understand each of your worker’s unique needs and their state of wellbeing. If you understand your employees, then you’ll know what’s characteristic of their typical workplace behaviours. This will help you detect signs of presenteeism.

For instance, you may know that employee X makes it their business to check up on the wellbeing of other workers. If you notice that this behaviour is consistently absent from them, it could be indicative of poor employee health.

Open door policy

As managers, part of knowing your employees involves having an open door policy. There’s nothing worse than having complete separation between employees and line managers. It’s important that your workers feel understood and comfortable enough to speak openly with you.

Whether it’s about work or personal issues, you as the employer should be empathetic towards their situation. You should encourage employees to feel confident about discussing any concerns with you.

Opening up can be the best form of medicine for a good mental health. You just need to create a trustful environment to facilitate this.

Wellbeing programs

It’s important that you make the work environment a place that your employees look forward to, rather than run away from. Introducing mental wellness programs can help alleviate the personal stressors of employees in the workplace by creating opportunities for support and enjoyment.

Providing opportunities for your workers to use professional support services is important. This may include the option for several free counselling sessions a year for each employee. Such services can help employees work through any mental health issues they may be experiencing.

In turn, this will help reduce presenteeism in the workplace. You could also create opportunities for enjoyment by organising fitness and exercise classes, regular social events or promoting a pet-friendly office (because there’s nothing better than having your cute, furry friend next to you!).

Employee misconduct

Poor mental wellbeing can also transfer into the workplace in the form of employee misconduct. So why can poor mental wellbeing eventuate in behavioural misconduct in the workplace? Poor judgment and rationality can result from a weakened state of mental wellbeing.

Personal stressors could cloud the distinction between what is right and wrong. At the same time, these employees may become naive to the impact their poor choices and actions are having on their colleagues.

Misconduct involves any violation of workplace, industry and government codes. There are two common forms of workplace misconduct that are determined by the severity of the outcome: general misconduct and serious misconduct.

General misconduct may include violations with smaller consequences such as wearing inappropriate work attire, using inappropriate language and intentionally being late to meetings. On the other hand, serious misconduct will have more negative consequences for the victim and the workplace.

Examples of serious misconduct include being intoxicated on the job, assault, theft or failure to follow mandatory work measures and instructions.

There are no hard and fast ways of addressing or preventing general and serious misconduct issues in the workplace. However, the team at Employment Hero have put together a useful guide to dealing with employee misconduct like an HR pro.

Taking care of employee health

Poor mental health impacts not only the person experiencing it but also the broader work environment. As an employer, it can be difficult to know when an employee is struggling with their personal or working life.

Presenteeism is a common yet serious outcome of poor employee mental health. A lack of motivation, uncharacteristic mistakes and disengagement with colleagues can be a clear sign that presenteeism is an issue in your workplace.

Remember, the mental wellbeing of your employees is first and foremost paramount. A healthy work environment will follow.

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