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What Is Digital Presenteeism?

Key Takeaways

1. Digital Presenteeism has intensified during and following the pandemic

2. Digital presenteeism significantly reduces workers productivity

3. Tackling digital presenteeism demands good example setting from the top

4. A remote working team charter can help to combat digital presenteeism

Digital presenteeism – what is it?

Remote working technology was meant to liberate us all, (giving us the freedom to work when we want and where we want), and it surely has. But remote working has been shown recently to have a dark side: an unhealthy ‘always on’ culture of digital presenteeism, (sometimes termed virtual presenteeism).

According to Abby Peel[1], Co-Lead Mental Health Network at the UK Government Digital Service, this phenomenon, digital presenteeism is, “when you feel under pressure to always be available online, via video calls, phone, email, chat, or Slack. It’s when you’ve done a full day’s work but feel pressure to log on or reply later than your normal or preferred working patterns, even if you feel exhausted or unwell.”

Is the fear of missing out driving virtual presenteeism?

But what has caused this wave of digital presenteeism? In many ways the same forces that drove physical presenteeism have led to this more pervasive form of digital presenteeism.

For example, this research from Canada Life[2] shows that 46% of employees working from home during the pandemic felt more pressure to be present. This feeling is probably driven by anxiety around proximity bias which is the inherent tendency of human beings to favor the people and ideas physically closest at hand. Another 16% admit to continuing to work from home even if they are feeling unwell, and they do this because they are worried about being made redundant.

It is this old-fashioned fear of missing out that drove physical presenteeism and which has been extended by remote working technology to produce a toxic 24/7 digital presenteeism.

Presenteeism significantly reduces productivity.

With digital presenteeism leading to the working of longer hours, the pure industrialist might be wondering what the fuss is about. More hours mean more output and customer availability. Surely this is good? On the face of it, maybe, but the law of diminishing returns limits this as a sustainable strategy. This is because digital presenteeism means although they are present, staff are functioning in a sub-optimal state[3] driven by stress, lack of sleep, and financial worries, which has a harmful effect on your company’s productivity. In fact, studies show that the economic cost of presenteeism is greater than absenteeism[4], and that over 35 productive days a year were lost a year because of virtual presenteeism[5].

What can be done to combat virtual presenteeism?

Despite the gloomy statistics, there is huge cause for optimism because remote working, (more lately, hybrid working), has changed most people’s lives for the better in many ways.

And the documented risks and issues associated with a remote working powered culture can be mitigated with well-targeted interventions which help to keep your workers engaged. For example:

  • 1. Create boundaries
  • Establish boundaries for yourself, (so you can be seen to lead by example) and your team around digital presenteeism which could include things such as:
    • Blocking out time in yours and/or team’s calendars for no meetings or appointments
    • Designating periods of times when you turn off notifications such as when you are on a break or doing some work which requires deep thought and no interruptions.
    • Avoiding responding to emails out of hours, it’s a domino effect, the more you do it, the more other team members and subordinates will feel obliged too. Portugal[6], Italy[7], Spain, Ireland, and Belgium[8] have gone as far as to ban employers from contacting staff out of hours as part of laws to promote a healthier work life balance amid an increase in homeworking.[9] Ontario is considering it too. This zero-tolerance approach might not suit all situations, but moving to an exceptional, rather than a routine approach to out-of-hours communications could be the health and wellbeing ‘sweet spot’.
  • 2. Schedule breaks
  • When working from home, (especially), set out your preferred working pattern in your calendar, so others know when you are available and of course try to stick to it. Again, encourage your team members to do the same. Ensure to include breaks as [10] this important aspect of mental wellbeing has been neglected in recent times according to research with:
    • 95% of 133 companies’ employees saying they had neglected so-called microbreaks when working from home.
    • Only 47.3% of those surveyed took a break every hour.
  • 3. Organize work-adjacent activities
  • As well as break planning you could encourage leisure time activity such as setting up exercise challenges for your team on social apps like Strava. This is important as research shows that just around a half of remote workers do some form of exercise when away from their desk. Go further and regularly update your team members about how you spend your breaks exercising, relaxing, gardening etc… or whatever you do to take your mind off work and improve your physical and mental wellbeing. During zoom calls subtly enquire about how team members spend their breaks and time-off and highlight those who practice good habits. The effects will be contagious and help to build a healthy culture and work-life balance around your team to combat virtual presenteeism.
  • 4. Show leadership
  • Leading from the top must be one of the most important initiatives. Try setting a ‘wellbeing team charter’ or remote work policy for how your organization or how your team behaves when using remote technologies. This will help to set expectations around what isn’t acceptable around digital working. For example, a perpetual habit of just-before-bed and just-before-breakfast emails should be discouraged or at least investigated! They are a clear sign of someone not switching off.
  • 5. Optimize performance management
  • Another way to tackle digital presenteeism is to make it mandatory for employees to complete detailed timesheets or other performance management systems. By properly tracking the performance of remote working teams, you can quickly highlight excessive working or inefficient working practices indicative of digital presenteeism and potential burnout.

    Encourage staff to make use of fitness trackers with in-built wellness apps which track sleep, exercise and stress allowing them to optimize their mental and physical activity which will automatically combat digital presenteeism in the process.

Improve the remote work environment with Horizons

Even though we have reached the end of the pandemic, remote working and hybrid working is here to stay. Progressive companies are taking this legacy forward by seamlessly weaving remote working into the fabric of their culture.

This process can often come with challenges and if you need help developing a remote working culture free of virtual presenteeism, please consider us at Horizons with our proven ability to support remote teams around the world.


[1] https://digitalpeople.blog.gov.uk/2020/10/27/digital-presenteeism/

[2] https://www.canadalife.co.uk/news/redundancy-fears-causing-increase-in-presenteeism-during-lockdown/

[3] https://www.cipd.co.uk/news-views/cipd-voice/Issue-25/managing-challenge-workforce-presenteeism-covid-19-crisis#gref

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/investopedia/2013/07/10/the-causes-and-costs-of-absenteeism-in-the-workplace/

[5] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210604-why-presenteeism-always-wins-out-over-productivity

[6] https://www.itv.com/news/2021-11-12/could-your-boss-be-banned-from-contacting-you-outside-work-hours

[7] https://theconversation.com/the-right-to-disconnect-why-legislation-doesnt-address-the-real-problems-with-work-170941#:~:text=Less%20than%20a%20decade%20later,considering%20enacting%20a%20similar%20law.

[8] https://www.zdnet.com/article/right-to-disconnect-another-country-bans-out-of-hours-calls-from-bosses/

[9] https://theconversation.com/the-right-to-disconnect-why-legislation-doesnt-address-the-real-problems-with-work-170941#:~:text=Less%20than%20a%20decade%20later,considering%20enacting%20a%20similar%20law.

[10] https://wearewildgoose.com/uk/news/the-working-from-home-employee-survey/≈

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Reduced productivity when people attend work but aren’t fully engaged and have sup-optimal health and well-being and underperform as result of it.

A top-down and peer-driven expectation that employees should attend work for long hours in the face of disengagement, tiredness, sickness and potential burnout. 

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