Are you guilty of presenteeism?

20 Jun

This is not my current desk

Having inadvertently given my friends and family the impression I work all day and every day, I started to think about whether the cult of “Presenteeism” is as strong in the self-employed community as it is among employees. Surely it shouldn’t be … and if it is, what can we do about it?

What is presenteeism?

We’ve all heard of absenteeism, or the practice of regularly removing oneself from the working environment for no good reason. Presenteeism is the opposite. It’s in the Oxford Concise Dictionary, and here’s how they define it:

The practice of being present at work for longer than required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job,

This manifests itself in that classic competition over who can stay latest in the office (or, more importantly, who can be seen to be staying latest in the office. Or being in earliest. Or both. We’ve all sent an email to the boss when we’ve got in particularly early, haven’t we?

Now, that’s all well and good when you have a boss to impress. But what if you work on your own?  And I’m admitting doing this myself, here – although inadvertently. It’s easy to send that Tweet or Facebook status at the end of a long day …

Phew – done 10 hours at the desk today – big project!!!!

but is it so easy to say

Good day, did a couple of hours of work, all caught up so I lay around reading for a few hours

Well, is it?

Why do we have to engage in presenteeism?

I’d be interested to work out why we do this. Are we so busy trying to combat that insidious view of freelancers as people who sit around in their pyjamas watching daytime telly? Surely our friends and family know we don’t do that by now?

If you work in an office, you will tend to have set start and finish times, a proper lunch break, and weekends off (or a set working pattern) and holidays. How many freelancers take the full holiday entitlement they would be given as an employee? I know I probably don’t.

So when it’s quiet, we’re up to date and we skip off merrily to the cafe, or the gym, or just lounge in the garden for an hour or so, is that really a crime?

And isn’t it better for our friends and family to know we’re happy. whole, balanced and relaxed than working every hour there is on a hideous treadmill of work? Didn’t at least some of us go freelance  to avoid that hideous treadmill of work?

Celebrate balance, not overwork

I’m not suggesting we stop working when we need to be working. Everyone has to pull one of those 11 hour shifts sometimes. But let’s all be honest about how we live, celebrate the downtime as well as the busy times, and acknowledge that, yes, we do do this in order to have balance and flexibility in our lives, and we do have work patterns which are different, but balanced over the grand scheme of things.

I’m going to talk about this in public – I dare you to too!

Inspiration for this post came from one I published on my other blog about what I do all day. I have tried, since publishing that, to note when I have some time off …


Posted by on June 20, 2012 in Business, Ethics



14 responses to “Are you guilty of presenteeism?

  1. Kate Millin

    June 20, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Yet another appropriate post for me at the moment Liz. My problem with presenteeism is when I’m off sick I’m not very good at switching off and end up logging on to work as soon as I’m starting my convalescence which I’m sure doesn’t help. This time breaking my arm I have found that I get so tired that I can only manage very short time working online it is at least making me pace myself although it is the pain and not my mind is doing that.
    On the other hand I am getting better at not logging on to work while I’m actually on leave presumably because I planned it and I’m allowing myself to not think about work I
    aren’t we strange creatures.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 20, 2012 at 7:46 am

      Thank you for your honesty here, Kate – I think we all need to be honest about the temptations and about how we’re doing – it sounds like you’ve got the annual leave bit more sorted out now, anyway. I’ll be interested to hear what other people have to say on the topic, too.


  2. karenstrunks (@karenstrunks)

    June 20, 2012 at 8:02 am

    This is something I probably do (maybe partly down to being too conscientious), but not something I had given thought to until now. When I had some time off recently and didn’t work every evening (as well as during the day), and took the weekends off and went out, it took a little bit of adjusting to. My normal work/industry related tweets were replaced by ‘I’m doing this at such and such a place and I’m having a great time!’. None of us have to justify how we spend our time to anyone, especially as self-employed. Of course you have to account for your time to your boss if you are employed, but outside those hours, your time is your own to do with as you wish. Go wild! 🙂


    • Liz at Libro

      June 20, 2012 at 8:05 am

      Thank you for your comment, Karen. You’ve been an inspiration to me, seeing you take time off, enjoy yourself and the rest of your life not seeming to collapse! I’m going to take time out to watch the Olympics in August, and have a holiday too – but I have to admit to working extra hard to make up some “holiday pay” to cover the loss in earnings. But that’s just sensible freelancer stuff, right!


  3. Lyndsey Michaels

    June 20, 2012 at 9:55 am

    I think a lot of it (for me) stems from a feeling of responsibility. That is, I know how much support (and patience!) my partner, family and friends have given and still are giving me so that I can properly make a go of this and I don’t want to seem as though I’m taking that for granted. Sticking to those traditional office hours as much as possible and banging on about how hard I’m working is probably more irritating than reassuring though!

    Likewise, I don’t want to come across as smug to the rest of the world, if I’m tweeting about having a long bath in the middle of the day – I feel I ought to justify it with “but more work later of course, to catch up!!” – why, I don’t know, because I’m quite sure no one could give a monkey’s, really 🙂

    In addition, I seem to fall into that trap of seeing myself as an employee (through the eyes of a boss/manager) and curse myself for not putting the hours in – despite the fact that some days, more, better quality work gets done in half the time when I’ve got something else (non-work related) to do later, than over a long day where I’m dawdling about on each task.

    I believe that to reconcile these two elements of myself (boss/employee), the answer lies in me becoming a better manager, rather than a harder working employee. In terms of managing myself, I should aspire to be all the things I loved about great past bosses, and none of the things I hated about awful past bosses.

    Or maybe I just need therapy!


    • Liz at Libro

      June 20, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Thank you for your detailed and honest reply, Lyndsey. I think I’m the harshest boss I’ve had – but this was the point of going freelance, wasn’t it: flexibility and enjoying our lives a bit more. Most people seem to be happy to see me doing fun and nice things rather than working and working. And what business is it of most people, if the people closest to us know we’re pulling our weight.

      It’s worth pointing out to people, maybe, that it’s not actually possible for people in jobs like ours to plan ahead or fill every hour of a 9-5. I’m sure you’ve waited around all day for a job to come in that you then have to do 4-10pm? So maybe managing expectations of what our days are like is the key …


  4. lyndseymichaels

    June 20, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Ah, yes, absolutely – I have periods of days where very little is ‘getting done’ followed by periods of hectic, super-focused activity to meet a deadline.

    I’m learning that having a very well organised and extensive ‘to do’ list gives me enough things to do on those slow days so that I still feel like I’m being proactive with work and I’m also trying to force myself to do non-work related (and even – gasp! – non-housework related) activities so that I can show myself why I was right to become a freelancer.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 21, 2012 at 9:18 am

      That sounds like my learning curve – and because some of my work is quite demanding (e.g. that transcription work I do!) I know now to make sure I’m rested and well beforehand, not wild-eyed, guilty and full of make-work to make myself feel I’ve been productive!


  5. Johanna Robinson

    June 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

    I’m interested to read this as I’m just half-starting out. I’m on maternity leave, not sure whether I’ll be able to hand notice in or not yet, but have started 2 businesses anyway. My experience therefore is from being an employee. I got in an hour early, never had a lunch break and felt guilty for leaving 15 minutes (as opposed to an hour or so) *after* my finish time to collect my son from nursery, where he was spending 55 hours a week. I checked and responded on my blackberry throughout evenings, weekends and holidays. I still receive facebook updates from my colleague stating he has been at work for 12 hours / in at 7am etc etc, so I think presenteeism is ‘present’ in many many walks of life, whether as employee or freelancer, perhaps for different reasons. I’m interested to see any differences if I do manage to become a freelancer.


    • Liz at Libro

      June 21, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Thank you for your reply. I would say that, as you transition to being a freelancer (and I hope you’ve found all the resources I have to help you along that path on the website and blog) you should make a conscious decision NOT to engage in presenteeism, and to remember why you are freeleancing in the first place. I think there is no boss as harsh as yourself – for example, who made you do all those extra hours? Your boss or you? And also by not taking lunch etc as an employee, you are a) contravening working time regulations on breaks and b) setting up a precedent so the bosses can make other people do that – sometimes b is helpful in making people stop doing that one.

      Good luck for your maternity leave and future freelance career!


  6. Holmesfan

    June 22, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    What an interesting series of comments from folk who are out there doing or about to do what you are doing.
    From a completely different perspective and not really ‘on topic’ I’ll tell you that the first thoughts that came to me when reading your post took me back to fully employed days in a bank and latterly and more tediously in a Govenment office. In that case presenteeism, if observed in relation to someone else, was a trigger of suspicion. The mercifully few people I came across with highly visible presenteeism were those who were ‘on the take’ and didn’t dare to be away from their work place in case their criminal actions might be discovered.
    The term also applied, again mercifully few, to insecure bosses who wanted to be in situ all the hours possible to make sure that their underlings didn’t slack for a moment.
    Do you wonder why I was so delighted when the time came to retire?


    • Liz at Libro

      June 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      How interesting! I’ve loved seeing all the different experiences people have shared in the comments on here!



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