Presenteeism Rears Its Ugly Head in Hong Kong

All may not be well behind the hard-working and entrepreneurial image of the Hong Kong workforce. COVID-19 is creating a silent presenteeism epidemic.

Presenteeism occurs when employees are not fully productive while being present at work. Exhaustion, illness, and poor health are some of the causes.

Unfortunately, the workplace is wired to monitor its more widely-known cousin, absenteeism. It is often easy to measure productivity when an employee is not there; a lot more challenging to find out whether an employee’s sub-par performance is because of presenteeism or capabilities.

Dr. Zoë Fortune, chief executive officer at City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong (CMHA HK), decided to find out. Her organization partnered with Oliver Wyman to ask 1,500 respondents in 13 different industries between June and July of this year about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health.

“So for employers [presenteeism] is difficult to measure, which is why our survey is important because as it is being conducted by CMHA HK, totally unrelated to their employers, employees can potentially be more forthcoming in saying how often, on average, they may present at work when they are struggling with mental health problems,” she said.

The results of the survey were both startling and worrisome. One in four Hong Kong employees (27%) suffered mental health problems in the last 12 months. Eighty-three percent of this group still went to work despite these problems and admitted to presenteeism.

Presenteeism is also becoming more frequent. Twenty-two percent of those admitted experiencing it several days per month; 18% said 2-3 times a week.

“It is important for companies to be aware of this so that they can know how best to tackle the issue and provide support to staff who might otherwise go unnoticed,” said Dr. Fortune. She noted that support programs and pulse surveys could help. “But equally, it’s key for colleagues and managers to communicate well with one another, ensure regular check-ins and ensure patterns of work that work for all members of the team.”

Hong Kong’s famed work ethic is also working against their mental health as they work from home. “It was already well recognized that Hong Kong employees were working long hours and that there was an expectation on the part of employers that their employees be accessible well beyond their core working hours, even before working from home became our way of working during COVID-19,” said Dr. Fortune.

Employers need to change this attitude, and HR leaders need to do their part to change their corporate culture if they want to address presenteeism. For Dr. Fortune, this means setting realistic work expectations for employees, looking for signs of mental ill-health among employees, and finding ways to support them. They include creating supportive teams, providing EAP programs that include mental health support, and implementing strategies to address mental ill-health.

Communication is essential. Dr. Fortune urged team leaders to understand the behaviors of their employees, have regular check-ins, which are “not regular meetings,” and create personal connections. HR leaders also need to train line managers to identify and help their team members to handle presenteeism.

Dr. Fortune noted that Hong Kong employers are not sitting around passively. HR leaders in Hong Kong are focusing more on workplace wellbeing, both physical and mental. But it is not enough.

“There is still a long way to go, and the areas that we can tackle to address this include valuing autonomy, listening to staff, BRGs, ERGs, among others,” said Dr. Fortune.

Dr. Fortune highlighted CMHA HK’s Thriving at Work Guide as a freely-available guideline for HR leaders looking to change workplace culture and improve their employees’ mental health.

“It’s around several key areas such as: developing a culture of openness and inclusivity; it’s about communication, having a mental health strategy that you can articulate with company leadership, managers and employees — it’s about leading from the top, effective people management, to name just a few.  And then it’s also about how we measure the implementation and success of these strategies,” said Dr. Fortune.

It will be sometime before we come to terms with the real cost of COVID-19. But despite the grief, disruption, and upheaval it created, the pandemic has brought to light issues that would have remained hidden.

Presenteeism is one of them. And it can also highlight to HR leaders deep-seated fractures in the work culture that may have been missed out during boom times.   

“Presenteeism is the canary in the coal mine — it can be seen as an indicator of wider systemic issues, so it’s important that employers have an awareness that it exists in the workplace, that it’s present among employees,” said Dr. Fortune.

Cover image credit: iStockphoto/Oleksandra Bezverkha

Hong Kong employers need to do more to address rising presenteeism at the workplaces, says Dr. Zoë Fortune, chief executive officer at CMHA HK.

Cover image credit: iStockphoto/Oleksandra Bezverkha