Elizabeth Brantley has developed a sudden midlife fear of strangers — the kind walking through her office, unannounced, in suits. • Jeremy Halloran is looking over his shoulder more these days, since a promise of no layoffs proved false. And Kristi Casey finds herself impulsively sinking into her seat as anxious fellow carpoolers tune to grim economic news on the radio. "It's all around you," she said. • But not one of them would dare call in sick. Absenteeism is out. The new buzzword for our jittery work force? Presentee-ism.
In the old days (about a year ago), presentee-ism referred mostly to colleagues who, despite hacking coughs and low-grade fevers ("But I'm no longer contagious!") worried that we couldn't manage without them. So they showed up sick, present in body if not mind. Today, with layoffs looming, bankruptcies erupting and everybody on edge, presentee-ism has become something else, a don't-fire-me talisman that's all about appearances.
I'm here, boss! I'm here! So what if I've spent six hours counting paper clips?
"The economy is ratcheting up the stresses of everyday life," said psychiatrist Jim Jordan, medical director of the Hamm Clinic in St. Paul, Minn., who brought the issue to my attention. "You walk into work in the morning with the aura of what you've read in the paper swirling about. Then there are the conversations in the elevator, the glances. Or you look down and see that someone who was there last week is not there anymore. From minute to minute, day to day, this is going on."
Job insecurity's emotional toll
This is not to suggest the work force has never had slackers. Lynae Steinhagen, a partner in the Minneapolis consulting firm Madd-Steiny Productions, said the old term was "quitting, but staying."
"People might be disenchanted with their leader or they didn't feel connected or motivated, or a cultural change in the environment took the air out of their tires. So they decided, 'I'm going to hang in there,' but really they've decided to quit."
Still, workplace analysts report that the number of employees — and managers — who are physically present but emotionally unaccounted for is increasing at light speed and costing companies plenty.
Brett Gorovsky, an employment-law analyst for CCH in Chicago, said 38 percent of firms report presentee-ism problems, with workers showing an inability to concentrate or complete projects, engaging in excessive gossip or having blowups.
"God forbid you should take someone's pen these days because they will chase you down," said Brantley, a 49-year-old Maple Grove, Minn., resident who works in banking. She's kidding. Mostly.
Halloran, 27, of Elko, Minn., sees the phenomenon in his electronics company's insistence "on having a meeting just to have a meeting. No decisions are being made. No one knows which way to go."
Casey feels the cloud moving in her direction, even though her security company has been left largely intact.
"My sister's company has had two layoffs," said the 47-year-old from St. Paul. "So even when things are good, you doubt that it's going to stay that way."
What in the world is a worried worker to do?
Start with baby steps
Think small, suggests Mark Meier, a clinical social worker who specializes in workplace issues. "Say, 'I'm going to answer seven e-mails today and get this report written.' Getting that ball rolling can be catching."
Halloran finds focus by putting up photographs of his wife, daughter and pets in his work area. Casey checks in at happynews.com (on breaks, we presume). The site shares "good news happening in the world," she said. Brantley has learned to love routines. Weekly meeting at the same time and on the same day as last week? Celebrate.
If all else fails, Meier has one more suggestion. As long as you're going to all that trouble to be present at work, be present at work. "Say, 'Today, I'm going to work. I have a job today.' "