Avoiding lockdown presenteeism

Avoiding lockdown presenteeism

Avoiding lockdown presenteeism

by Cheryl Clements


Given our collective current reality, it’s hard to remember the time when we schlepped to work even when ill because we didn’t want to “let anyone down”. Or skulked out of the office, leaving a jacket on a chair to avoid looking like we were, heavens forbid, leaving on time.

Before this pandemic began, a study by Deloitte found that presenteeism - being present for work even when we’re unable to perform at full capacity - costs UK businesses £17-26 billion per year. Nowadays, the office may have been replaced by a kitchen table or a precariously balanced laptop in bed, but the feeling that we have to be seen to be working still has an impact.

We are all familiar with sending unnecessary emails to prove that we’re logged on, or receiving never ending messages from colleagues that signify little more than ‘I promise I’m thinking about work!’ We know it is better to measure work based on output rather than time spent. But we still feel that we must prove we’re ‘on it’ at all times. This is exacerbated when we can no longer physically show our boss or colleagues that we’re sitting at our computer in the office. Meanwhile, for parents there’s even more pressure as we juggle this new reality without childcare. As a result, it is easy to feel that we are failing in all areas all the time.

Presenteesim is founded on fear and mistrust. The fear that we’ll be assumed to be slacking, that we can’t be trusted to do what’s required and that what we can achieve isn’t enough. As parents, the fears go even deeper. We live in two realities and we tell ourselves that we’re not providing enough in either.

We’re living in anxious times. For many, the fear of losing a job is very real. This adds to the already insidious pressure to “lean in”. Yet maintaining the allusion that we are on, working and available, means we’re even less focused on doing what needs to be done. Chiming in on the email exchange, quickly responding to messages or saying yes to everything costs us our focus. 

Instead, can we use lockdown to change presenteeism to “presentism”, allowing us to find more time and more headspace? We know that work expands so as to fill the time available to do it. Let’s use lockdown to test new boundaries. The same things won’t work for everyone, and all circumstances are different, but some combination of the following might help you do so:

  • Communicate. Speak to managers about what needs to be done and the time frame. Does your work need to be done at a specific time in the day? Otherwise, you might want to do it “out of hours” so that it fits better into your family’s schedule.
  • Truly co-parent. Look at your family’s work schedules as a whole. If possible, ensure that one person isn’t shouldering the time burden or work goodwill burden alone. 
  • Manage yourself. Multi-tasking doesn’t work. Limit time with your phone; it allows you to be in too many places at once. Turn off alerts on your computer screen. Check emails at designated times. 
  • Be specific about your time and what you need to achieve. Do meetings need to be 1hr? Do you have to be included in all of the catch ups? Push back where you can.
  • Understand your managers’ pressures. What are the new priorities? Throwing your energy into ‘business as usual’ may not make the most sense and being more strategic may mean doing less.

The extra time or headspace we create isn’t to be squandered. It is to be used, guilt-free, to focus on our own needs and our own priorities. We have a duty to our children and a duty to our work, relationships, community and beyond, but we have the biggest duty to ourselves.

Cheryl Clements is the Women's Equality Party Spokesperson for Equal Parenting and Caregiving


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