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Leaveism: the new workplace wellbeing threat

We’ve long been concerned about the impact of absenteeism and presenteeism on workers and workplaces. But a recent study I carried out with my colleague, Dr Ian Hesketh, into a police force in the north of England uncovered a previously unidentified phenomena that sits outside contemporary descriptions of absence behaviours: leaveism.

Leaveism is when employees use allocated time off – such as annual leave entitlements, banked flexi-hours and re-rostered rest days – when they are in fact unwell. The same term can also refer to working outside contracted hours – including when on holiday or on allocated days off – when an employee is well but overloaded and unable to manage their workload.  

These leaveism behaviours are distinct from those categorised as ‘absenteeism’ or ‘presenteeism’, opening up a new opportunity to explore notions of abstractions from the workplace that are borne out of being unwell, or unfit to perform to the requirements of the particular task because of stressors such as work overload.  

This overload work may be conducted when the employee is well, but outside contracted (ie paid for) hours. In our research, it seems that organisations largely ignore employees’ need to complete work outside of hours – or, indeed, effectively promote the practice through absence management policies and the effect that taking time off has on personal records.

But leaveism undoubtedly, and significantly, skews the true picture of workforce wellbeing. For example, in some organisations employees have a quota of sickness, which, if exceeded (such as by taking three or more days off sick, or having three or more occasions of sickness absence within a set period, etc), somehow reflects poor performance. Taking annual leave rather than sickness leave therefore makes a lot of sense to an employee who is worried about their perceived job performance.

Our research found that 76 per cent of employees who have practised leaveism have done so to avoid being labelled as ‘poor performers’ or ‘unable to cope’ with their workload. This may lead to sickness absence going underreported by individual employees, and distorting both the incidence of sickness in the workplace and the organisation’s ability to understand and manage employee wellbeing.

At the Health and Wellbeing at Work conference in Birmingham earlier this month, Hesketh polled the audience on cases of leaveism in their organisations – and almost all delegates acknowledged the phenomenon was occurring in their own workplace.

The issue for most organisations is the impact that leaveism would have if it converted into sickness absence. But further research suggests that the ‘fear of job loss’, ‘downgrading’ and ‘low perceived job gratification’ appears to increase the likelihood of leaveism occurring.

Presenteeism is on the rise, too. In the CIPD’s latest Absence Management report, a third of organisations reported an increase in people coming to work ill in the last 12 months. It’s more likely to increase in companies where long working hours are seen to be the norm and where operational demands take precedence over employee wellbeing. Those organisations that reported a rise in presenteeism are nearly twice as likely to report an increase in stress-related absence, and more than twice as likely to report an increase in mental health problems. Worryingly, nearly three-fifths (56 per cent) of organisations that have noticed an increase in presenteeism have not taken any steps to discourage it.

The motivations behind leaveism are, at this stage, not entirely clear – and appear to differ from case to case. Further research is needed to establish what exactly drives these reactions to workplace workload and ill health. It seems an employee may come to work ill, or take annual leave to recover from illness, simply because they need the money and cannot financially afford take time off sick. Or, they could be taking home work that cannot be completed in contracted hours. Leaveism could even be triggered by a combination of both.

In these cases, leaveism could be considered an act of ‘organisational citizenship’, leaving us to consider if leaveism should be viewed through a positive or negative lens. This poses several unanswered questions, and we’re doing more research to establish explanations for the leaveism phenomena. Does it extend to people with caring responsibility, for young and old people? Are workers using time off to rest and recuperate? Or are they using the time to take on potentially emotionally challenging domestic roles? How does this all impact on the workplace?

Businesses are currently facing a whole host of challenges, from austerity to technological uncertainty, to the presence of a three-generation workforce. Employee wellbeing, it could be argued, has never been so important in ensuring sustainable performance. Understanding employee behaviours is key to getting this right, so organisations should be mindful of the leaveism phenomena, and have a strategy in place to mitigate against the consequences of its potential conversion into sickness absence. 

Added: 07-04-2016
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