While employees feeling obliged to work when they are physically ill is nothing new, there is a more insidious form of presenteeism that can happen when people are working from home, whereby an employee experiencing poor mental wellbeing either doesn’t know it or doesn’t show it. It’s harder to spot presenteeism while we’re all in lockdown, but communication can often bridge the gap.
Individuals suffering from depression, anxiety or feeling overwhelmed will not be able to operate at their best, but may not want to let their employer know out of fear it could jeopardise their position in the company. It can be difficult to spot the signs, but one of the red flags is decreased productivity.
Managers need to look out for changes in behaviour that are difficult to explain. In lockdown, this could be a reluctance to turn on their camera during a video call, turning up late to virtual meetings or having a lacklustre attitude – especially if the employee insists they’re fine.
The first action for any line manager to take is communicate with the individual. Don’t be afraid of having an open conversation around mental health. Managers don’t have to be counsellors or psychologists to have this discussion, they just need to be attuned to that individual to notice irregular behaviour. Managers should give concrete examples of tasks that didn’t come out well, but immediately follow with concern and ask what can be done to help. Listening is crucial.
You can refer the staff member to your organisation’s employee assistance programme, if there is one, or other useful resources. But that doesn’t guarantee they will seek help, especially if they are unaware or in denial about their mental health condition. Having an open conversation, however, may enable someone who is struggling to feel safe to speak up and seek help.
People issues such as presenteeism and mental ill-health should only reach HR as a last resort. Line managers are best positioned to notice the signs and understand the particular needs of each employee, so HR needs to equip managers to make these decisions autonomously.
Ngozi Weller is director at Aurora Wellness