YOU’VE got to be joking! As if Irish business hadn’t enough problems to contend with at the moment, a new one suddenly appears on the horizon. Unlike the jellyfish invasion of Lough Derg, this one has spread, not from the Yangtze River, but from the American workplace, where most of our current labour notions have their origins. We used to be such an easy going, laid back race; now we’re running around like worker ants thanks, in part anyway, to US multinational conditioning.
Anyway, the new problem confronting Irish business leaders and industrialists is ‘presenteeism’ – the opposite of ‘absenteeism’ - which is causing even more angst in HR departments.
More and more people, it seems, are now turning up at work suffering from all kinds of ailments, threatening to spread a plague among the entire workforce, and worse still, costing the company a fortune because they’re obviously not firing off all their engines. Even with fevered brows and temperatures of 104, they’re refusing to stay in bed, and, incredibly, there are some HR departments where they haven’t seen a doctor’s sick note since shortly after the demise of the tiger.
Maybe I’m being cynical, and perhaps it’s just an extension of the more enlightened attitude to slavery - i.e. treat them well and you’ll get a hell of a lot more out of them - but I have my doubts about ‘presenteeism’ posing much of a problem for Irish business. Workers, on the other hand, should try and do something about the condition, before they’re all found dead at their posts, desks or assembly lines.
The funny thing is that we’d probably have made some kind of a virtue out of this strange new work ethic if it weren’t for the Aviva Workplace Health Index, which has just issued a dire warning about the dangers of ‘presenteeism’ to Irish bosses. It’s a bit confusing, to say the least. It was only last year that ‘absenteeism’ was identified as a major threat to the economy, and thousands of people, mainly public servants, lost some of their generous sick day allowances. ‘Pulling a sickie’ was regarded as treasonable, and something that had to be tackled urgently.
But we don’t seem to be able to find a happy medium. We’ve gone from being treacherous absentees to dangerous ‘presentees’ in the space of a few months. Thanks to a survey in (where do you think?) America, it seems that ‘presenteeism’ can cost a business three times as much as employees who ring in sick. And that, I think, is the kernel of the problem. It’s nothing new, really. I suffered from this ‘presenteeism’ affliction myself throughout my working life. Actually, come to think of it, it started when I was at school. I never wanted to miss a single day, not because of the probability of falling behind my class mates, but because I desperately wanted to achieve fame as the girl who never missed a day at school. But, as I said before, something always came along to thwart even the noblest of my ambitions. I don’t know what went wrong. Maybe someone tampered with the roll books and marked me absent when I wasn’t.
The same kind of altruism – if you could call it that – accompanied me to the workplace. Many a day, I dragged myself into work with a sore throat, pounding head and raging temperature, and sat at the desk shivering and barely able to function. Sympathy was seldom forthcoming, and once when the boss told me to ‘go home and go to bed before you infect the whole office’, I was outraged. I was your original ‘presentee’ pest, and I still don’t know why I did it. Not for a minute did I think that the whole place might fall to pieces without me, or that if I stayed away, even for a short time, I’d find someone else sitting in my place when I returned, doing a far better job.
It never dawned on me either that I might be a nuisance, or a threat to the business, although it often did strike me as strange that I wasn’t being held up as an example to other employees. Maybe the urge to be present at all times had something to do with my deep-seated insecurities, or was it just my dread of ringing in sick? There was no point in ringing in sick if you didn’t sound sick, and even on those occasions when I was close enough to death’s door, I knew that I sounded absolutely hale and hearty over the phone. I practiced faint whispers and death rattles and harsh croaks, but I could never master the authentic sick tone that would have somebody exclaiming at the other end of the line: “she really does sound terrible!”
As a result, I always felt that I had to exaggerate the effects of a 24 hour bug in order to convince my superiors that I wasn’t a malingerer or suffering from a hang-over. It wasn’t easy to return to work afterwards, looking like I’d spent the free day at a spa.
Before this, I had always thought that absenteeism was a characteristic of hard times when people were overworked, stressed and underpaid. Not so, it seems. Recessions and economic downturns are more likely to spark ‘presenteeism’ according to the psychologists, because workers are afraid to ring in sick in case they’re seen as undependable or, worse still, dispensable. The rising cost of obtaining a doctor’s cert might have something to do with it too, I’d guess.