Why are young workers unable to overcome presenteeism?

Even in a changed work world, compared to their bosses, junior employees are much less likely to be able to work flexibly. Why?

The rise of flexible work has been heralded as one of the pandemic’s most significant shifts. The narrative goes that newly empowered employees, particularly knowledge workers, can now choose when they work, fitting their work schedule around their personal lives rather than being in front of their computers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

However, new data suggests that this workday flexibility may be primarily reserved for managers. According to a July 2022 study of 2,000 knowledge workers in the United States and the United Kingdom conducted by digital work hub Qatalog and software-development platform Gitlab, 74% of executives can work on their own timetable, compared to only 24% of junior staff. This implies that there may be a significant difference between those who can control their hours and work asynchronously and those who cannot.

These findings are puzzling, given that companies benefit from increased workforce productivity and wellness when workers of all levels have access to flexibility. Experts attribute this gap to presenteeism, a problem that has plagued younger workers for years; in a remote-work or hybrid world, this means being online or in-chair during traditional working hours, rather than enjoying the autonomy afforded to more senior colleagues.  

But why exactly is the freedom to set your own timetable a privilege available for senior workers, even as more junior workers find themselves mired in ‘normal’ hours? Can this divide narrow, or is the presenteeism that drives this simply unavoidable on the first few rungs on the career ladder, regardless of whether it’s in-office or at home? 

How presenteeism sways junior 

In some ways, presenteeism is a throwback to the industrial era, when factory owners needed workers on-site and measured productivity by tangible output. Longer hours spent at the computer came to symbolise productivity as office culture evolved and output became less identifiable.

“We clung to presenteeism from the old days,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at University College London. Managers, he claims, became accustomed to judging employees’ productivity based on appearances, while employees learned to focus on impression management – appearing busy and always available for tasks.

A junior worker has to earn status, seniority and credibility – Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

However, this pressure to ‘perform’ work has always skewed towards junior workers. “While senior workers have built their career capital, there is greater onus on younger employees to stand out and prove themselves,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. Junior workers are more likely to focus on ‘making it’ in their careers and developing a positive reputation, he says; and this often means conforming to perceptions of what a ‘good’ junior worker should do. 

Chamorro-Premuzic believes presenteeism is largely a conversation around trust; workers need to earn the confidence of more senior colleagues before being entrusted with more autonomy. “Humans are hierarchical by nature: if you’re a newcomer you have to start from the bottom,” he says. “This won’t change, so a junior worker has to earn status, seniority and credibility. Like a sort of initiation, everyone is put through the same test.” 

Jessica Reeder, senior strategy and operations manager at Gitlab, based in New York City, agrees there’s a relationship between trust and presenteeism, saying greater presenteeism pressure is placed on lower-level roles. “The assumption is the executives are invested in the company and no one needs to check if they’re working, but the recent graduate doesn’t necessarily have the same motivation or passion about their work.”

However, it’s not just about trusting juniors as good or bad workers. In some cases, organisations want their younger employees to learn all facets of the industry before being afforded more independence, such as acquiring cultural etiquette, professional networks and jargon, which can be harder to achieve when working in isolation.

The growing flexibility gap 


In the digital age, presenteeism has moved online; workers have swapped late-night stints in the office for near-constant availability on email, Zoom and messaging platforms. But the rise in remote working triggered by the pandemic has seemingly created an even bigger trust divide between managers, who can craft their work schedules, versus junior employees who often have to constantly show availability. 

Helen Hughes, associate professor at Leeds University Business School, UK, says younger people working from home may now face even greater pressure to show they’re working. “While presenteeism certainly existed before Covid for junior workers, it manifested differently: managers could see employees more readily, and junior workers had easier access to role models and cues from their work environment on how to behave.” 

But now, Hughes says, junior employees can be left confused as to how to show they’re working in a changed landscape. “In the early days of a career, it can be harder to approach conversations with managers in a remote-working environment. [Younger workers] may not know how to prove they’re busy, so they just sit at their computer all day and instantly respond to emails to show their employer they’re always available for work.” 

According to Hughes, presenteeism can also manifest in workplace cultures that practise monitoring. “In those cases, junior workers are exhausted from being tracked all day, to the point where they are unable to leave their desk for lunch.”

Junior employees may also believe they are less able to work flexibly if they are the only one among their peers who is absent for a significant portion of the day. According to Hughes, tensions can arise when one person has control over their hours while others do not. Furthermore, young workers may believe that requests for flexibility will result in negative perceptions of their commitment if all of their colleagues work standard hours. Workers may only feel empowered to work more flexibly after climbing a rung or two on the career ladder. According to Chamorro-Premuzic, as they accumulate career capital, typically through a promotion, they gradually cross the threshold from being always available to having some autonomy over their hours.