Charge ’Em Up - How to Combat Remote Presenteeism
#evolve Magazine
January 22, 2021
As we are entering what one human resources thought leader calls
"The Year of the Manager," one of the challenges facing bosses is
how to keep a remote workforce engaged and productive.

Let’s face it: Unless a person is cloistered like a monk, they’ve been dealing with a din of new distractions while working remotely since March of last year. One could say that the pandemic is a petri dish for presenteeism, which means being “on the job” but otherwise distracted. And, no matter the configuration of the post-COVID-19 workplace, remote work is here to stay.

Data from several Willis Towers Watson pulse surveys support the notion that remote workers are dealing with increased distractions. The consultancy has polled 540,000 workers globally about the effects of COVID-19, finding that 89% of employees report experiencing some anxiety that stems from COVID-19. Another 70% reported financial concerns related to the pandemic, with 67% saying worries over COVID-19 have caused them to be distracted at work.

Put another way, the pandemic is bringing together human and business crises.

“2021 will be the Year of the Manager,” said Suzanne McAndrew, managing director, Willis Towers Watson.

“Managers are at the center of your teams and, particularly in a virtual world, are often the business’s key connection to understanding what is and is not working for your people. They’re in a unique position to gauge: Are employees balancing work and life? Showing signs of fatigue? Not taking PTO? Showing signs of social isolation?

“It’s why enabling managers to lead with resilience and empathy is so critical right now,” she continued. “We need to equip them to guide people and teams through these moments while also recognizing that managers are employees, too, trying to navigate their unique COVID-related challenges.”

Taking small steps

Part of that new approach to leadership is reevaluating what constitutes engagement, productivity and presenteeism, McAndrew said. In this remote working world, presenteeism is no longer as simple as being physically present at work but distracted and “somewhere else” mentally.

“It is a moment for leaders to step up and consider new definitions. Defining presenteeism involves looking at value added versus time spent. It’s how we show up versus attendance,” she said, offering the example of a direct report who is extremely productive in “off hours,” while choosing to block his calendar from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. daily to help his kids with virtual schooling.

Relatively minor actions can help take a bite out of distractions and presenteeism, McAndrew pointed out.

She recommended such steps as establishing focus days, where there are no meetings unless they are addressing a time-sensitive critical issue; shortening virtual meetings to, say, 25 or 50 minutes instead of the standard 30 or 60 minutes, to give employees a few minutes to themselves; making sure you are making room in those conversations for small talk; and letting employees know that, if they are getting emails from colleagues 24/7, it’s OK to turn them off. The key? Ensuring they’re not treated as suggestions but rather become true behavior changes upheld by all leaders, said McAndrew, who encourages cultivating a culture of openness that includes safe zones.

“Listen and make it safe for employees to tell you how they are doing. Give people a safe place to say no and opt out of things.”

“Listen and make it safe for employees to tell you how they are doing. Give people a safe place to say no and opt out of things.”

One client had an employee who asked to attend a weekly meeting every other week, saying he would use the time gained to address one of the company’s goals — increasing its focus on customers.

“I’ve had to reset my expectations of trust,” McAndrew said. “Productivity and impact can come in a lot of ways. Look at business results. If they are working, [remote work] is working.”

Thinking short term

Now’s the time to be tactical and think short term. Focused meetings at the start and end of each day not only increase productivity, but can help deal with feelings of isolationism, says Katrina Burrus, a Ph.D. in human and organizational behavior.

“In the morning, have a meeting and go over what you want to get done for the day,” she said. “Close it out in the evening with a focus group to go over the day. It helps you know if everyone is working and being productive.

“Working virtually is a different world,” continued Burrus, the author of Managing Brilliant Jerks: How Organizations and Coaches Can Transform Difficult Leaders into Powerful Visionaries. “Our concentration is diminished by all the distractions, plus we miss the presence of our peers. Being alone in these times can lead to uncertainty.”

That uncertainty can lead to stress about such things as losing your job. Humans address stress with fight, flight or freeze. Freezing is a form of being on the job but not really being there, Burrus said.

“Leaders need to understand the uncertainty of the present situation and offer hope while addressing the short term,” she said.

Both Burrus and McAndrew emphasized that recognition is more important in a virtual work- place than in a traditional office setting. Small things, such as a shout-out in a Zoom meeting or an e-card, can help those who may be feeling isolated and powerless realize that they are doing a good job addressing factors they can control.

Getting to the cause

Approach presenteeism problems with conversation, not confrontation or corrective actions, urges a national employee assistance program (EAP) advocate.

“Presenteeism is a very real phenomenon and it’s becoming more and more of a problem,” said Greg DeLapp, CEO of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), citing studies that show increases in such presenteeism issues as finances and personal relationships during COVID-19.

“What’s important is what’s behind the distraction,” DeLapp said. “The cause becomes the focus of their attention. You have to identify and deal with the cause in order for it to be fixed.” DeLapp has been addressing presenteeism since the late 1970s. He worked for more than 30 years in employee assistance for a specialty steel company. “I saw presenteeism as really problematic in areas of safety,” DeLapp said. “In other environments, it’s problematic in what you contribute to the group.”

When having the presenteeism talk with your team, start with a little self-disclosure, he added. “All of us working in remote situations are experiencing this at some level. [The conversation] doesn’t start with fault. It starts with reality. Say ‘I do this too.’ Describe your challenges and ask, ‘Are any of you experiencing this too?’

“People are usually willing to talk about the situation.”

Presenteeism ‘Tells’

But what if people aren’t disclosing their problems, or talk doesn’t lead to improved worker focus? How do you identify and address the causes behind presenteeism, especially when working remotely? “You often hear talk about the distractions — the dog, the kids, the emails, tech problems that keep going on without resolution, asking questions about things that have been discussed before and there is little eye contact in visual exchanges. You get a sense of a problem, that they aren’t there,” DeLapp said. “As a manager, you need to know what quality work looks like and what non-quality work looks like and ask, ‘Why aren’t we getting results?’”

Some organizations are acting like Big Brother, monitoring their remote employees with software that can detect if employees are at their computer. But the standard workday is a thing of the past in these remote times — and attempts to look busy should go by the wayside as well, DeLapp said. “When you are discussing what your people are doing to bring their attention back to the screen, you may find out that it’s taking a break and going for a walk,” he said.

McAndrew urges establishing “continuous listening” with such tools as virtual focus groups, saying that data can be collected, not to monitor employee activity, but to help find effective engagement tools.

Sometimes, a manager’s best efforts don’t help the employee remedy the situation. “If you have gone through all the steps to connect with the employee and have enough insight to know [the problem] is not due to a well-being crisis, it’s time to hold people to performance standards,” McAndrew said. “Handle it like it’s a performance conversation and put tools in place [to improve performance].”

“What’s important is what’s behind the distraction … you have to identify and deal with the cause in order for it to be fixed.”

EAP time

Finding and addressing the cause of presenteeism may need to involve an EAP, which, according to the recent Workplace Outcome Suite (WOS) Annual Report, has remarkable success in reducing distractions that are hurting worker productivity.

DeLapp advises contacting the EAP and then approaching the employee, saying, “Something is going on here. The normal things I tried are not getting what I am looking for. Would you consider talking with the folks [in EAP]?”

Then ask the employee to contact the EAP and ask how you can help along the way.

“Again, it doesn’t have to be confrontational,” DeLapp said. “The person ‘in trouble’ tends to survive on denial and manipulation.”

And, you’re not dealing with an overnight problem. “I tell managers on every level that no one walks in the door of [an] EAP based on one incident,” he said. “They are not a novice to the problem. There has been an issue for weeks, months, years. It’s time for an objective third party to approach the problem.” The WOS report identified presenteeism as the

No. 1 employee issue in terms of negative impact on the workplace. That decade-long, pre-COVID study, conducted by Morneau Shepell and DeLapp’s EAPA, also concluded that presenteeism has the greatest extent of improvement after EAP counseling, translating into the greatest source of cost savings and ROI.

The study sample included 35,693 employees with self-reported data collected from 2010 to 2019. It measured employee feeling at the start of EAP counseling and about three months after counseling ended, and found:

  • The issue was making it difficult to concentrate on work: 56% before counseling, 28% after counseling.
  • Dissatisfaction with life overall, indicating a level of clinical distress: 37% to 16%.
  • Not being engaged in their work: 32% to 23%.
  • Missed a half day or more of work time: 29% to 13%.
  • Feelings of dread when going to the workplace (workplace distress): 22% to 13%.

EAP counseling estimated ROI for employee ranged from 3:1 for small businesses; 5:1 for medium-size businesses; and 9:1 for big businesses in the United States.

DeLapp says changing workforce demographics have led to different EAP goals during his time in the profession. “When I started, the goals were very tangible, such as reducing absenteeism and medical costs,” he said. “We made assumptions that people would stay with the company for 30 years.

“Now it’s three to five years, maybe. So, EAP is about getting more out of them when they are with you, not long-term changes.

“It’s more reflective of the current situation.”

A time to shine

The uncertainty that was 2020 isn’t ending with the new calendar. But one thing is certain: The pandemic provides a stage to show your leadership chops, Burrus said.

“Being a good leader in good times is a lot easier. This is an opportunity for top leaders to rise to the top. Those who can adapt and manage people in these kinds of times are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

Five steps to addressing employee mental health

Sometimes, presenteeism issues are much more serious than trying to balance your remote work with helping your children with remote learning.

Take behavioral health. It was already an emerging public health problem before COVID-19, and now countless studies point to a growing portion of the workforce experiencing mental health problems.

A number of risk factors have emerged during the pandemic that could contribute to potential behavioral health concerns, including issues with work-life balance, isolation, lack of sleep, increase of alcohol sales and consumption, and concerns about finances and job security.

Mental-health conditions affect more than a third of the world’s population, with depression and anxiety alone resulting in an estimated $1 trillion in lost economic productivity, according to the Northeast Business Group on Health (NEBGH) and One Mind PsyberGuide, which offer an employer’s guide for dealing with mental-health issues.

“As demand for behavioral-health resources continues to grow, employees will look to their employers for support, thus creating a responsibility to respond,” said Sandra Kuhn, national leader of Mercer’s Behavioral Health practice. “Much of the research suggests at least a 2:1 return on investment in improved productivity, decreased absenteeism and presenteeism and reduced claims when behavioral health is addressed.”

Kuhn recommends five steps employers can take to address behavioral health:

  1. Examine your current state. Review existing programs and utilization patterns to identify where you should be investing time and resources. Ensure your vendors are integrated to support your members across the continuum of behavioral health care.

  2. Evaluate your employee assistance program (EAP). Test your EAP as a user to determine if your vendor is operating as expected, press for improvement or evaluate new vendors.

  3. Identify gaps. What technology do your employees prefer? Evaluate vendor options that can meet the needs and desired member experience for your members.

  4. Ensure supports are in place for managers/supervisors. Managers are positioned uniquely to support their direct reports by helping them navigate services to address low-acuity behavioral health challenges.

  5. Encourage a culture of openness. Provide transparent communications and let employees know that it is OK to speak up.
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