Research into leaveism is in its earliest stages, says Professor Sir Cary Cooper, but organisations need to be aware of its causes and impact on employee wellbeing

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.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper is 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, and president of the CIPD. Dr Ian Hesketh is an honorary researcher at Lancaster University Management School, a visiting fellow at the Open University and a police officer with Lancashire Constabulary – currently seconded to the College of Policing.

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  • It is of course a possibility that poor organisation and structure impose stress and anxiety on manager and job holder. In my experience many,when asked the question: "where does your time go"- can't answer it. If you take a notional 40 hour week and ask the individual to complete a simple activity chart, you'll invariably find that: 1. They're guessing and 2.Even then they can't account for much more than 60 or 70%. It's no wonder they have to take work home with them.It's a management and organisation problem more often than not. Anna is right.It's a trendy term. Having burdened us all with "Presenteeism", Prof Cooper now presents "Leavism" as some kind of workplace psychological phenomenon he has discovered. Actually this is "Cooperism". Does being President of CIPD confer some kind of privilege to invent this sort of rubbish?

  • we have been aware of this for such a long time, working in the 'welfare to work' sector and supporting employers in both public and private sector for many years, we have assisted employee's and worked with employers to support the retention of staff.

    Through confidential discussions with employees, most of whom are dealing with workplace stress and anxiety, use leaveism as a way of concealing how they are feeling and use leaveism as a way to try and avoid potential disciplinary action for absence/attendance. We have worked with many companies over the years to support staff and managers using Vocational Rehabilitation, giving practical support, along with disability and mental ill-health awareness, helping employers to create a better environment and whilst providing a more cost-effective way to support their staff. Most employers do not know how much absenteeism, presenteeism and leaveism cost their company, including, loss of productivity, administration costs, temporary staffing or recruitment, disciplinary, and tribunal, we can show that by introducing Vocational rehabilitation as part of their support for employers is not only cost effective but also helps to improve productivity and morale.

  • This is nothing new to most people - it simply has a new trendy term to label it with. People will be given things to do and be expected for those to be done asap,or even better for yesterday.It is common practice for people to take work home in fact in my workplace rarely people don't.

  • Very interesting article and one that is easily recognised both in the public and private sectors.

    So few employers are taking workforce well-being seriously - yes, there are more EPA programmes than you can shake a stick at, yes, lots like to provide yoga or mindfulness taster sessions for staff, and yes, many organisations like to go through the motions of providing 'counselling', but where is the prioritisation of an evidence based structured approach to staff psychological well-being?

    The only example I've seen is an NHS Trust (Pennine Care) that provides a structured therapeutic online programme for staff stress (think it's delivered by a Finnish firm of psychologists), where employees can sign up in confidence without their manager knowing. But I've not seen something of this standard elsewhere.

    Absenteeism, presenteeism and leaveism all point to the need for aggressive targeting of workplace stress.