Exclusive: From presenteeism to peakism

There’s a lot of pressure on HR and people managers tend to focus on what’s most near and pressing. This can result in frustration and a loss of purpose. Guest contributor Gurunath Hari says the concept of “peakism” provides a rallying point for organisational leaders to recalibrate how they should nurture performance.

Imagine this. You are entering a room that’s dimly lit. You look for lights and find a nice-looking bulb on the ceiling. Then, you look for the switch. You flick on the switch. The light does not come on. You instinctively flick the switch on and off a couple of times. Still, no light. What would you be thinking at this point? The bulb must have fused; time to replace the bulb? So, you get the bulb replaced and now, with obvious expectations, you flick on the switch.

Rewind to the day before. The power line had tripped and no one had reset it yet. You think, “Heck! What’s wrong, maybe there’s a problem with the power,” and now, you go looking for the cause, find it and reset the circuit breaker. Electricity flows back and the bulb lights up. Eureka!

In the real world, the reason we get away with replacing the bulb every time it doesn’t glow is because we have some way of knowing that the power was there in the first place. In this second case, you did not have the means of knowing. The next time you flick the switch to this room and the bulb does not glow, what would you check first?

The bulb is a metaphor for employees. The power line is your employees’ holistic well-being. The switching on and off multiple times to check if the bulb lights up are the manager pep talks, senior management coffee talks, and employee speeches given by business leaders exhorting employees to “step up”.

Can you be successful in switching on your employee if you don’t know how to check if the power line is faltering? Because that’s exactly what is happening here in Singapore, according to AIA’s 2013 Healthy Living Index Survey.

Three in four (77%) Singaporeans indicated that their health was not as good as it was five years earlier, even among the younger age group of 18 to 29 year olds (72%). Moreover, an overwhelming 89% of the bulbs were telling their employers to check and to do more to help keep the power flowing. In other words, these bulbs are presentees. They show up but they are not glowing as bright as they’d like to or as you’d want them to. They come to work somewhat unwell.

Show me the evidence

So, you say you’ve squeezed your workforce with smart performance management levers and persuasive narratives. You’ve insidiously shrunk compensation and benefits over time, you even laid off chunks of the workforce and you are still in business, making good revenues and profits.

Your company’s share price is even up.

Not for long. If this is how it’s been, and if you choose to not to do something about it, be informed that the workforce is insidiously underperforming versus your ever-rising productivity expectations.

Yes, you want to know “why I should act”. You need evidence. So, let me show you some data first.

Evidence of need is all over the workplace

There are 11 possible power-line glitch sources that could diminish energy to your employees and act as barriers to productivity. These were found in research entitled The Wellbeing Assessment for Productivity: A Wellbeing Approach to Presenteeism and are shown in the picture below.

You will notice that “health” is just one of the 11 sources of presenteeism.

A ground-breaking study by Nanyang Technological University’s Hesan Quazi and his final year management students in Singapore involved 273 working adult respondents.

This study firstly confirmed the prevalence of presenteeism to be ubiquitous, and then went on to compute the cost of this presenteeism in only one of the 11 aspects, health. The team looked at chronic health conditions such as allergies, asthma, arthritis, anxiety, chronic back pain and hypertensions, as well as acute conditions like coughing, diarrhea, fever, headache and influenza. After averaging out the degree of presenteeism across all the different hierarchical levels in the organisation, here’s what they found for every employee:

  • Approximately four per cent of an employee’s annual eligible work time is lost due to sickness presenteeism
  • For an employee earning a mean annual base salary of $36,000, this loss of productivity amounts to an average cost of $2,096 per annum to the organisation
  • Based on this model, the estimated workdays lost only due to physical health reasons was 89 workdays for a 135-strong company

Recall this is just the cost arising out of one of 11 factors that contribute to presenteeism. If you looked at the lost eligible work time of employees across your organisation covering all the 11 possible barriers in play, the estimated cost due to loss of productivity would be multiplied, running into the millions.

What is peakism?

In today’s ultra-competitive world, disruptors are breaking through everywhere. Continue to be skeptical about new and breakthrough people-initiatives at your own peril. If you are a business leader, you may be unaware of how to address this as your tunnel vision ensures you focus your employees on the numbers. Your company will continue to take the bumpy ride and somehow stay afloat.

But now, you have a choice.

You have the most to benefit from attending to this iceberg of upside called ‘peakism’, the opposite of presenteeism.

Peakism is the habitual pattern of employees coming to work holistically well and seeking to contribute sustainable peak performance.

There is tremendous benefit and value for you and your superiors if you really sit up and figure out how to foster peakism. It’s necessary to start measuring presenteeism for your own company and validating your estimates with real data. Many expensive, sophisticated tools exist. The challenge is that most of these are designed for western societies and are heavily biased towards looking mostly at the physical (disease) and mental (stress, emotional distress) dimensions.

From the The Well-Being Assessment for Productivity study, we know there are other barriers that can exist.

These could include family and personal issues, financial wellbeing, and relationships with coworkers and managers. With a simple checklist and honest scoring of performance, organisations can develop their own individual map of the barriers to peak performance.

How does it work?

By combining the research efforts of several teams spread globally, the author has developed a unique methodology and a set of tools to measure and shift from presenteeism to peakism. It is a simple and quick way to help you get started. There are four steps in executing this robust methodology - from measurement to management to transformation in a repeatable manner.

The steps have the acronym EASY™ and you’ll see why shortly: Starting with Measuring Presenteeism, Triage into which of the 11 factors are at play, letting employees do a self-check and then helping to set out a course (pun intended) of action to take, and leading them towards peakism.


Evaluate yourself

In a letter to persons interested in “content and scoring rules for the World Health Organization Health and Work Performance Questionnaire (WHO HPQ) absenteeism and presenteeism questions,” dated May 1, 2007, Ron Kessler, Maria Petukhova and Keith McInnes of the Harvard Medical School, and T. Bedirhan Üstün, of the WHO, gave a quick way to compute presenteeism as shown below. They extracted the following 3 key questions from the WHO HPQ survey that you can answer:

Question B9: On a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is the worst job performance anyone could have at your job and 10 is the performance of a top worker, how would you rate the usual performance of most workers in a job similar to yours?

Worst Performance =0 Top Performance =10

Question B10: Using the same 0-to-10 scale, how would you rate your usual job performance over the past year or two?

Worst Performance =0 Top Performance =10

Question B11: Using the same 0-to-10 scale, how would you rate your overall job performance on the days you worked during the past 4 weeks (28 days)?

Worst Performance =0 Top Performance =10

The scoring rules are:

  • Absolute presenteeism scoring rule: 10xB11
  • Relative presenteeism scoring rule: B11/B9 (restricted to the range 0.25 to 2.0)

1. Start by thinking about your role. Answer the questions with honesty.

2. What answer did you get for:

– Absolute Presenteeism

  • Relative Presenteeism


Assess which one or more of 12 factors may be contributing to your above scores:

  • My physical wellness
  • Caregiving for a dependent (special needs/infant/elderly/sick)
  • My financial wellness
  • A personal matter
  • My mental wellness
  • Lack of resources
  • Coworker issues
  • Manager issues
  • Not enough time
  • Issues with management
  • I feel I would benefit from training (specify)
  • Technical issues
  • Other (specify)


Self-check your holistic wellness pursuit

Now for a deeper dive into figuring out the actions you can take, go through the HolisticWellnessTeller™.

Share your map with a wellness coach and off you go on your personalised wellness journey! The author will work with specific organisations, consulting with them to provide resources and additional policies and procedures, helping to develop programmes that include training HR personnel, executives, business leaders and employees on this new wellness-based approach to delivering sustainable performance excellence at the individual and corporate levels.


You are on your way to excellence:

Utilise your company’s corporate holistic wellness ecosystem including trainings, group activities, skills development, manager one-on-ones and other opportunities to progress towards improving your holistic well-being. If your company does not have one, they soon will. Until then, either they or you can take action by utilising external resources.


Going back to our dim-lit room. What would you do differently and better now that you are one of the smarter ones? You know now that it could either be a problem with the bulb or a problem with power not reaching the bulb. In this real-world example, it does turn out that the old bulb would have lit up the room just as well, if only the circuit breaker was reset.

It may have dawned on you that the prevalence of presenteeism is an in situ loss of employee engagement. Leadership guru Mark C Crowley, has written: “One key reason engagement has fallen so severely is that people have greatly changed what they need and expect in exchange for work – and our leadership practices have failed to evolve. What’s required now is that we reimagine leadership and identify all the things that can help restore 21st Century employee spirits, and motivate people to excel”.

The pressures of living in a world at warp speed and the prevalence of technology companies with seductive devices to make your employees get ever more productive is likely to cause 21st century problems not seen in the 20th Century.

With the concept of peakism, organisations can adopt leadership practices that are evolved. We can reimagine leadership and identify more of the things that can help restore these 21st Century employee spirits, and motivate people to excel.

Figure 1


WBA-P measurement model. WBA-P indicates well-being assessment for productivity; WBA-PP, well-being assessment for productivity (personal barriers); WBA-PW, well-being assessment for productivity (work related).

(Reproduced with permission from the copyright holders)



The EASY™ Methodology


About the author

Gurunath Hari is an author, speaker, facilitator and developer of The 6 Dimensions – a method for employers and employees to unlock their excellence at the workplace and at home. His 30 years’ of corporate experience and insights coupled with cutting edge research guarantee an action-packed and fun-filled journey into discovering your life’s purpose and catapulting you to a state of receiving and giving excellence and happiness.


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