Most people blame stress as the primary cause of their illnesses, their absent-mindedness, their inability to cope with life’s rituals, and their just-flat-out tiredness. The direct result to organizations is underperformance and a resulting loss of productivity.

Here are some statistics to put stress into perspective.

  • Absenteeism from work has increased by over 300 percent in Canada since 1995.
  •  In the United Kingdom, stress-related absences accounted for the highest number of days lost from work in 2010 (27 days on average).
  • The American Psychological Association in 2009 reported that 51 percent of employees said they were less productive at work as a result of stress.

If you think these numbers are high, you’re right. However, increased absenteeism is not as harmful to an organization as you might think. Presenteeism is worse.

Presenteeism is the loss of productivity that ocurs when employees come to work, but because of illness or other conditions, are not fully functioning. Not only do they underperform, but those with whom they interact may also be sucked into the abyss of presenteeism.

A study published in October 2011 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that more productivity was lost due to presenteeism than absenteeism, showing an average of three days of presenteeism every six months, which was twice as many days as absenteeism. A similar study in Australia in 2007 demonstrated that presenteeism cost organizations $25.7 billion annually and that on average, six working days of productivity are lost per year per employee due to presenteeism.

So is stress bad for productivity? Not necessarily. One needs a certain amount of stress to perform well, but what the research demonstrates is that organizations need to pay attention to their employees to ensure a healthy level of stress for peak performance. Here are some areas to watch out for:

  • Meaningfulness of work including the pace and variety – is it suitable to the employee? If not, look at work that is more suitable, but don’t dismiss the employee’s capability out of hand. You may be surprised at what creative genius may lurk behind what appears to be an underperforming employee.
  • Workload – is the employee overworked or underworked? Balance is necessary.
  • Role conflict – are there conflicting job demands or multiple supervisors or managers? Fix this.
  • Career development opportunities – does the employee have opportunities for career development through the organization? Provide the necessary opportunities. It’s more expensive to hire and re-train a new employee than it is to upgrade skills of an existing employee.
  • Role ambiguity – ensure there is clarity about the job responsibilities and expectations. Job performance plans may be helpful here.

And finally, as the organization’s leader, put yourself in the employee’s shoes. Have an honest look around. Now change what needs to be changed to improve your employee’s and your organization’s productivity.


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