Many people have heard of “absenteeism,” where an employee regularly stays away from work without a good reason. There’s also “presenteeism,” where an employee is at their desk, but can't or isn't performing their job duties due to illness, injury or other conditions. There is, however, a third less known “ism” called “leaveism”.
Leaveism is a term first coined in 2013 by Dr. Ian Hesketh, a researcher at the University of Manchester. Dr. Hesketh first introduced this term to describe employees who use other leave days (vacation days, etc.) instead of sick days to mask sickness or care for dependents (children, elderly relatives, etc.). He later expanded it to include:
- Working outside of regular hours because of workload
- Working while on vacation, flextime or over the weekend
Another study in 2018 found that 72% of respondents had participated in leaveism, and 37% of people took annual leave (rather than sick leave) when they were ill. More than 30% of those surveyed reported that people took vacation days to catch up on work. An even more recent study found that up to half of employees surveyed took work home and claimed that they were on vacation.
Leaveism wasn't alleviated but increased during COVID-19. Employees directed to stay home stopped taking sick days when they were unwell. The workload for employees rose exponentially. The lack of a defined end of the workday paired with back-to-back meetings on Zoom, answering messages on Teams, Slack and email often compelled employees to work very long hours.
There are many reasons why leaveism is a problem
If leaveism hides the true workload, departments may not plan for adequate resources. For example, if an employee is working after hours to “catch up” on their work and not reporting it, the department might conclude that there are enough resources to meet operational requirements.
For employees working in situations with leaveism, this can lead to stress, burnout and disengagement, which can lead to sick leave and long-term costs for the department or faculty. As employees become disengaged or leave for better work environments, this amounts to real costs to the University. There's less of a chance of recruiting and retaining the best people, as healthy work culture is important to new or prospective employees.
Employees who engage in chronic leaveism suffer from mental and physical stress. They experience low morale and impaired cognitive functioning. Leaveism affects their personal life, too, through reducing sleep and exercise and increasing poor eating habits and the use of alcohol or recreational drugs.
Why are workers falling prey to leaveism?
There are a few reasons why so many employees are engaging in leaveism, one of which is workload. It’s often easier to work on vacation if your workload is already considerable and will become overwhelming if you don’t use some vacation time to work. Another reason is technology. It’s never been easier to stay connected to work through your phone, iPad or laptop. Finally, as a typical workplace can be the last place to concentrate, a vacation might be the best way to do focused, distraction-free tasks.
Ways to reduce leaveism in the workplace
If you're a manager or supervisor, the best way to reduce leaveism would be to model healthy work-life boundaries. Don’t answer emails hours outside of work hours. If you don't take work home, take your vacation time to relax and take sick days when you are ill, your reports will take note of your example and follow your lead.
Discuss the real workload to understand if there are gaps. Often, supervisors and managers may not even be aware that leaveism happens in their department or faculty. Take the time during a PDP discussion, annual review or one-to-one meeting to ask an employee about specific habits. Note if there is a trend for all your reports to take work home or work over the weekend. Look at when emails are being sent by your reports and discuss or remind them that rest is vital for work productivity.
Redistribute work by cross-training employees. Employees may feel that they must get the work done because no one else on the team can do the work. Making sure that there are other members of the unit or team who complete their duties while another employee is on vacation is imperative.
Provide flexible working arrangements. The average worker is disrupted about 56 times a day. Giving employees time away from the campus, which is very social, but may be distracting at times, will help them do more focused work. Flexible or hybrid situations may offer an ideal balance for many.
Champion your budget. Do what you can to properly resource your department, which may include lobbying to hire more people. For many managers, this may be an obvious statement, but consider hiring help if you find that the real workload of your current staff is overwhelming.