Tag: work

You’ve had a busy day at work. You check your watch; it’s almost 5pm. You should be packing soon – except, your boss is still in their office. You shouldn’t really be seen leaving before your boss, should you? You don’t want to be branded as ‘that guy’ – the one who is ‘not committed’, ‘not willing to go the extra mile’, ‘not flexible enough’, first out of the door’ – you don’t want to have that label pinned on your performance appraisal. After all, your boss is still hard at work, and so are your other colleagues.

So you wait, pretending to work, although you do not really do much – perhaps you’re checking Facebook, reading the news or similar. And so does your boss, not wanting to be seen leaving before anyone else. But what example is this going to set for you and your other colleagues. You all wait for someone to make the first move – a prisoner’s dilemma situation. The only difference is that it’s you who is the prisoner in this situation.


What we have described is an example of presenteeism. But how would we define it? If you search the term on Google Scholar or Scopus, you will come across a number of articles in the fields of health and labour economics that define presenteeism as a phenomenon in which employees who feel physically unwell choose to go to work, or stay on at work, rather than asking for time off to get better (see, for instance, Hansen and Andersen, 2008 and several others). This is also known as sickness presenteeism.

According to Cooper and Lu (2016), however, the use of the term can be extended to describe a wider situation in which a worker is physically present at their workplace but not functioning (by reason of tiredness, physical illness, mental ill-health, peer pressure or whatever else). As explained in Biron and Saksvik (2009):

Cooper’s conceptualisation of presenteeism implied that presenteeism was a behaviour determined by specific determinants (i.e. long working hours and a context of uncertainty). This tendency to stay at work longer than required to display a visible commitment is what Simpson (1998) calls ‘competitive presenteeism’ where people compete on who will stay in the office the longest.

The effect of presenteeism

Unsurprisingly, the effect of presenteeism on the wellbeing of workers and the economic performance of firms has been looked at extensively from different angles and disciplines – including health economists, organisational behaviour and labour economists – for a recent and comprehensive review of the literature on this topic see Lohaus and Habermann (2019).

Most of these studies agree that the effects of presenteeism are negative; in particular, they identify significant negative effects on the physical health of workers (Skagen and Collins, 2016); emotional exhaustion and mental health issues (Demerouti et al, 2009); persistent productivity loss (Warren et al, 2011); lower work engagement and negative feelings (Asfaw et al, 2017) – among several others. There seems, therefore, to be plenty of convincing evidence that presenteeism is bad for everyone – business owners, managers and staff.

So next time that you find yourself stuck at work working silly hours, feeling totally unproductive and just staying to be seen, email this blog to your boss and other colleagues – and ask them if they wish to join you for a drink or a walk.

You’re welcome!

(By the way, there’s a saying that in the UK the last one to leave the office is seen as the hardest working, whereas in Germany the last one to leave the office is seen as the least efficient!)




  1. ‘Presenteeism leads to lower productivity and firm performance and should be discouraged by business owners and managers’. Discuss.
  2. Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and owner of Ali Baba, has defended his ‘996 work model’ (working 9am to 9pm for 6 days a week) as a ‘huge blessing’. Find and review some articles on this topic, and use them to write a response. Your response should be substantiated using relevant economic theory and empirical research.
  3. Have you or anyone you know found yourself guilty of presenteeism? Share your experience with the rest of the class, focusing on effects on productivity and your attitude towards your employer and work colleagues.

One of the key areas discussed in the election was welfare and in particular what to do about those who remain long term dependent on welfare. How can the UK government encourage people back to work? A key issue is the poverty trap: some people are simply better off living on benefits than they are getting a job. Here, we’re talking about the marginal-tax-plus-lost-benefit rate. When you start earning, you get taxed, pay national insurance contributions and lose some of your benefits. All this leads to a situation where work doesn’t pay.

In a paper ‘Escaping the Poverty Trap’ by Lawrence Kay, he considered how much better off people are moving from different benefits into work, taking into account the high costs of actually finding a job and then starting work. He found that after 16 hours of work, someone on Job-seekers’ allowance would be £15.07 poorer and someone on Employment and Support Allowance would be £39.35 worse off. In many cases, people were facing a marginal effective tax rate in excess of 100%. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that Lawrence Kay found that ‘Long term welfare claims have been Britain’s blight for many years’.

However, the Coalition has plans to change this and make sure that those in work are paid more and are better off than those on benefits. By making working life a more attractive option, this should encourage those for whom work doesn’t pay to enter the labour force. This will obviously benefit them, increase the potential output of the economy (hence growth) and improve net taxes, as tax revenue rises and benefits expenditure falls. While this may not lead to tax cuts for those in work (as benefits spending falls), it may mean that more tax revenue is devoted to areas such as health and education or that the government can close the budget deficit.

The ‘universal credit’ aims to simplify the current system and make work pay, by re-introducing a culture of work in households. There is also a plan to place sanctions on those turning down work and place a cap on benefits to any single family. There was also be tax changes aimed at helping those moving into work keep more of their money, thereby removing, or at least reducing, the poverty trap. However, some families will lose out – as the IFS noted, any reform ‘creates winners and losers’. However, the reforms are a step in the right direction. As David Cameron said:

“I think that will, over time, solve the whole poverty trap issue that has bedeviled governments of all colours.”

The Labour party does back some of the changes, but questions whether there is enough help for people finding work. Another issue that must be considered is while it is undoubtedly a good plan to encourage more people to move into work and off benefits, which jobs will they move into? With unemployment still high, now is not exactly the best time to be looking for a job. However, whatever the state of the economy, providing incentives for people to move from benefits into work is definitely a good plan, but of course the methods used will be under constant scrutiny.


Iain Duncan Smith sets out Welfare Reform Bill plans BBC News (17/2/11)
Bill ditches housing benefit cut The Press Association (17/2/11)
Life on benefits is no longer an option Mail Online, James Chapman (17/2/11)
Universal Credit welfare switch ‘to hit 1.4m homes’ BBC News (12/1/11)
Nick Clegg blocks housing benefit cut for jobless Guardian, Patrick Wintour (17/2/11)
It’s time to end this addiction to benefits Telegraph (17/2/11)

Escaping the Poverty Trap Policy Exchange, Lawrence Kay 2010


  1. What is the poverty trap? Which factors make it worse?
  2. Why does the poverty trap act as a labour supply disincentive for those on benefits?
  3. If taxes of those in work have to be increased, what happens to their incentive to work more hours? Think about the income and substitution effects of a real wage change.
  4. Why is it that working may not pay?
  5. How does the Universal Credit aim to alleviate the poverty trap? Who are likely to be the winners and losers from the government’s proposed welfare reforms?
  6. What is a marginal-tax-plus-lost-benefit rate? How do you calculate it?
  7. Are there any other policies that could also reduce the poverty trap? How effective are they likely to be?