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How to stamp out 'digital presenteeism' among remote workers

Worried mature woman doing home finances at home
Before the pandemic, one UK survey suggested that 80% of workers said presenteeism existed in their workplace, with a quarter of the respondents saying it had got worse since the prior year. Photo: Getty

If you’ve felt under pressure to be ‘on call’ 24/7 when working from home, you’re not alone. Many of us feel the need to be always available when working remotely, to prove to our employers that we are still working - even when we’re not physically in the office.

Presenteeism, where employees show up to work when they’re unwell, is a growing problem in workplaces. Before the pandemic, one UK survey suggested that 80% of workers said presenteeism existed in their workplace, with a quarter of the respondents saying it had got worse since the prior year.

Now, the shift to remote work and our ‘always on’ digital culture has triggered a new type of digital presenteeism. Rather than turning up to the office, though, remote workers are pressured to be online and visible all the time - often to the detriment of their physical and mental health.

“We’ve all experienced that person who is praised for always being ‘first in, last out’ - and that person who is a hero for passing on having a full lunch hour in favour of everyone else. That is presenteeism,” says Cheryl Thompson, a career and confidence coach and mindset mentor.

“For years, it has been rewarded and revered in public, forcing all others to follow suit if they want even a sniff of recognition. Now with lockdown and work becoming remote, there is a surge of digital presenteeism.”

Digital presenteeism can be attributed to several factors, Thompson explains. Job insecurity and the fear of redundancy can encourage us to go above and beyond our duties, such as answering emails out of hours, working late and taking on too much work.

“An employee may feel they must prove their constant commitment, and that translates to digital presenteeism,” Thompson says.

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It can also manifest if managers can feel mistrustful of their employees when work is remote. If employers aren’t used to workers being out of the office, it can be tempting to micromanage or check up on employees. As a result, those working remotely feel pressured to work longer.

“A further way fear and insecurity manifests is when it’s placed on a person by an overly expectant or unreasonable employer, or when it is observed behaviour from role models,” adds Thompson. “Every leader must be aware that their consistent behaviours teach others how to operate. A constantly available leader, working around the clock, is teaching their teams what they consider it takes to reach success.”

In addition, our 24/7 digital access makes it difficult to ignore messages or emails, even when we should be winding down in the evenings. From Slack to Zoom and Teams, we have endless ways of communicating in absentia, making it even easier to be available all the time.

“Now there is zero excuse to be absent,” says Thompson. “Some hoped that remote working would create more personal freedoms. Now, because of the beauty of technology, you can email from your sofa, your dinner table, the garden, the gym, even the bathroom. The question employers and employees must ask is - just because you can, does it mean you should?”

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In the long-term, working longer hours with little-to-no downtime is unsustainable and unhealthy, leading to stress, anxiety and burnout. Not only can these issues affect mental wellbeing, they also have an impact on your ability to work - which can have a lasting impact on your career.

“This combination of absent boundaries along with high and unreasonable expectations is absolutely creating thousands of future burnout candidates, which is costly for employers and employees,” says Thompson.

So what can employers do to ensure their remote workers stay healthy, happy and work reasonable hours from home?

First, it’s important to know your staff. If one person tends to work longer into the evenings, find out if it is because they feel pressured to - or because it suits them. If it is the former, it’s important to remind them to step back from work and take time off.

“Get to know them and their commitments – it’s enlightening to know why they do what they do and when,” she says. “Realign your own expectations of what is possible when working remotely. Remember we are humans, so create healthy habits for yourself and your teams.”

It’s also essential to lead by example. As an employer, you need to practice what you preach. If you don’t want your staff to work overtime every night, then you shouldn’t either.

Some employers may want to bring in more stringent measures to ensure remote workers aren’t burning the candle at both ends. Some businesses are implementing "right to disconnect" rules to allow people to log off from their jobs without being penalised, while some countries are enshrining this right in law.

However, it’s key to note that blanket policies - such as a ban on emailing past 8pm - don’t always benefit everyone. “Create policies and processes that consider the breadth of your teams so you create a healthy and safe place for all,” says Thompson.

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