If you’ve ever answered a couple of work emails while on holiday, you aren’t alone. Many of us find it hard to take time off, leave work behind and properly switch off from the daily grind. Even when we are unwell, many of us feel obliged to come into work and carry on – even if it means making our colleagues sick too.
We know that presenteeism, or people coming into work when they are ill, is a growing problem among workers. Since 2010, the number of people has tripled, according to a 2018 survey by CIPD and Simply Health. The research found 86% of over 1,000 respondents said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010.
But now there’s another problematic phenomenon on the rise: leaveism.
Leaveism is a phenomenon in which employees take work on holiday to avoid being seen as lazy by their managers, or because they are overwhelmed with tasks. It was first identified by Dr Ian Hesketh and Prof Sir Cary Cooper of Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK, after they conducted research into public and private sector workplaces.
It is used to describe employees using annual leave, flexitime, rest days and other leave entitlement schemes to have time off, when they were in fact too unwell to work. For the research, Cooper and Hesketh surveyed staff in a large UK police force to find that more than a third of the officers had taken leave or holiday when they were sick or injured.
Read more: Why do we get holiday guilt?
They soon realised it was part of a wider problem. Instead of just taking their allocated leave, workers in all kinds of industries and professions are using holidays as a time to work.
According to a 2018 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), more than two-thirds of respondents (69%) reported that leaveism had occurred in their organisation in the past year.
So why are people working when they are supposed to be having time off – and why does it matter?
According to Cooper and Hesketh, there are multiple reasons why more people are working through their holidays. “We could propose it is connected to an employee’s loyalty, not wanting to burden the organisation. There is also the notion that employees may just simply ‘enjoy their job to such an extent they unassumingly ‘carry on’ even when ill, injured, on leave, etc, because it is what they like to do,” they wrote in their paper.
“We could also suggest that it may be in response to a fear of being dismissed, made redundant or down-graded (demoted).”
Leaveism can also be attributed to employees simply having too much work to complete during their normal working hours – and they may feel embarrassed or scared of admitting this to their bosses.
The key reason why employers need to address leaveism is to improve employee health, particularly when issues such as burnout and chronic stress are on the rise. According to a survey of 44,000 employees by the charity Mind, half said they had experienced a mental health problem at work, but felt they couldn’t speak to their manager about it.
If workers feel they can’t disconnect from work without being penalised in some way, it may indicate a toxic workplace environment too.
There is no quick fix, but there are ways employers can address leaveism. Supporting employees with their workload and giving workers the space to have honest, authentic conversations with their bosses about any problems is crucial.
“Good leadership and people management practices form the bedrock of healthy and resilient workplaces, so every employer needs to focus their attention on these areas if they want long-term, sustainable change,” said Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD.
“It’s positive to see that employers who are taking action against unhealthy workplace practices are seeing the benefits of doing so, but we know that that employee well-being is still too low down the agenda for many other organisations.”