Posted in Blog, Business Inspiration, Leadership Inspiration, Personal Inspiration

Are We A Culture of Presenteeism? [Guest Blogger]

Work-life balance:

How’s your work-life balance?

Do you feel like you’re working all the time?

Is it stressing you out and impacting your relationships with your nearest and dearest?

You are not alone!

A culture of ‘presenteeism’:

I first encountered a culture of ‘presenteeism’, 20 years ago, when visiting a couple of research laboratories in various US locations for an interview.

Talking to some of those currently working in the groups, I heard that people felt under pressure to be SEEN to be working long hours, 7 days a week. I heard rumours of heads of groups keeping tabs on who was present on a Sunday.

Others told me that they would be asked what they were working on before the boss left for dinner in the evening at say 7 pm, and then being asked a couple of hours later – How did you get on?(!)

Someone told me that it was not possible to work for them and also have time to look after (in this case) a horse – I think the same would have applied to children, parents or other dependants!

The battle to have a work-life balance:

Roughly 10 years later, with two young children, I found myself in a constant battle to keep weekends, evenings and vacations free from work.

I remember desperately trying to get loads of work done on the last evening before going on vacation, spending the first three days of vacation trying hard to recover, wind down and enjoy spending time with my family – before spending the last day of the vacation frantically trying to work my way through the enormous back-log of emails that were sitting in my inbox!

Every Sunday evening, emails would start flying in – you could set your watch by it – Sunday early evening would come round and many emails would arrive, sent to all the Leadership team I was in.

I felt compelled to reply.

I later found out that my manager at the time was surprised to find that I was one of the people sending him the most emails – all replies! It turns out that I was conscientiously replying to each email that came in, thereby generating more email traffic!

The smartphone era:

And then we came to the era of smartphones, with our ‘always on’ culture. I was presented with a Blackberry so that I could ‘stay in the race’(!)

I felt frazzled and powerless with no control of my time, much to the frustration of my husband and with negative consequences on my health, sleep quality etc.

Being seen to be busy:

Being busy has become a badge of honour in many of our workplaces. I used to chat to people in the queue to buy a coffee at work and ask how things were going – the answer was invariably “busy”.

Perhaps because in these times of layoffs, being busy is seen to hopefully imply indispensable?

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men” – attributed to Charles De Gaulle and others, but often repeated to me by a friend and former neighbour – thank you, Dave!

The lure of self-employment:

Nearly two-thirds of all employed workers, both women, and men, say they’d rather own their own business for the freedom that would give them to control their time.

Although having the freedom to control our own time doesn’t always mean plain sailing!

Many business owners I talk to are also struggling to avoid burnout and are not actually in control of their time.

Some business owners become their own worst boss ever!

The cost of our busy culture:

Research shows that forcing long hours, face time for the sake of face time, and late nights actually kills creativity and good thinking, and the ensuing stress, anxiety, and depression eat up health-care budgets.

It is estimated that the stressed-out ideal worker culture of no vacations, endless work, and exhausted butt-in-chair face-time presenteeism costs the US economy as much as $1.5 trillion per year.

So what can we do about it?

I think we need to take ownership.

If we take the view that everyone in an organisation contributes to the culture of that organisation, then we are responsible for the culture we are helping create.

By replying to emails from my manager at a weekend, I was not (just) a victim of the team culture and email traffic, I was reinforcing that culture and generating more email traffic.

I read something recently (apparently originally advertising a Sat Nav) that instead of complaining that we’re ‘stuck in traffic’ we should realise that we ‘are traffic!

Brigid Schulte says:

“Time is power.

Don’t give yours away.


Stop the “cycle of responsiveness” that makes work feel intense and unending.

Banish busyness.”

Little ripples can make a big impact:

Here are four areas in which you can take ownership, to lead by example, to take back control – whatever your position in your organisation.

1. Breaks

Make a decision to role-model ‘balance’.

When you do take a vacation, you need to give yourself a bit of slack too, whether you’re employed or self-employed.

2. Meetings

If you run meetings:

  • Do the attendees know the purpose, the desired outcome, why they are invited, what is expected from them?
  • Is there a timed agenda – and is it adhered to?

As an attendee:

  • What message do you send to others if you turn up to meetings with no agenda without question?
  • What does that say about how you value your time?

( A couple of years ago, I was asked to facilitate a 2-day meeting. I was amazed to find that the whole team had accepted the meeting request and put it in their calendar – despite there being no stated purpose, let alone expected outcome or agenda – just because the meeting request had come from the leader).

3. Email

What is the email etiquette in your organisation?

  • Are emails clearly marked in the subject header (e.g. Action required, For Your Interest)?
  • Is ‘reply to all’ the norm or is it discouraged?

How can you lead by example?

  • When do you send emails?
  • What message do you send out if you reply out of hours?
  • Are you ‘the traffic’??

4. Expectations

Beware of the pressure YOU are putting on you.

  • You may need to make sure you are not driving yourself to distraction by expecting too much of yourself.
  • We are not (despite what we might like to think or how we wear our underwear) superhuman!
  • Are your expectations (of what you can get done) realistic?

What kind of leader do you want to be? 

How will YOU lead by example?

What behaviours will YOU role-model?

What tone will YOU set?

Sian Rowsell is an effective coach and facilitator, helping you to be the best you can be. Having had a very successful and varied career in pharmaceuticals (mentoring, change leadership, continuous improvement, team leadership, project and portfolio management across global cross-functional teams), she has chosen to do full time what she really loves: coaching and facilitation. Based in the UK, Sian is a calm yet challenging group facilitator, team coach and 1:1 coach who helps individuals to have a more fulfilling life in and outside work. For more information, please email or visit

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