HR Management & Compliance

Leaveism: What Is It and Why Is It Important to Know About?

Leaveism is one of those funny-sounding words with potentially big consequences. In the United Kingdom alone, businesses have seen a 37% increase in leaveism over the past year. So what is it, and what are the consequences of not learning to avoid it?

What Is Leaveism?

Leaveism is a relatively new term coined in 2013 by Ian Hesketh, PhD. Of course, the concept behind it is quite a bit older. It describes when employees use accrued annual leave or excused absences to work outside scheduled hours and catch up on workloads.

The term joins the ranks of absenteeism and presenteeism, when employees are present but not functioning well due to injury, exhaustion, or another condition.

This practice is a natural extension and consequence of several trends in the modern workplace, including:

  • Employees—especially those in the United States—becoming averse to taking owed vacation time
  • Companies facing pressure to cut costs and engage in lean production, including smaller crews
  • Longer hours and higher expectations with lower pay than previous generations

Leaveism also extends to employees using paid leave to recover from illness. Workers do this when their job doesn’t provide sick leave. It also occurs if an employee has fears about falling behind and getting replaced.

Why Should HR Personnel Know?

Modern businesses face mounting pressure to operate in a lean fashion and deliver higher value. Leaveism sounds like an attractive antidote or a strategy to exploit. However, it’s not healthy for the sustainability of your business model or your employees. It feeds a vicious cycle of worker overload, despair, and diminishing returns.

Think about the everyday challenges of working in a modern office. Interruptions and distracting influences, such as loud conversations or visitors coming and going, riddle the workplace. When workers feel like they can’t keep up with obligations due to distractions, leaveism will compound the problem and lead to feelings of pressure and panic.

Workers turn to this practice because they worry that feeling overwhelmed could flag them for disciplinary action or dismissal. If employees are overwhelmed and worried about punitive action, what does it say about the company’s culture? HR should tune into this problem, as leaveism isn’t the crux—it’s a sign of something worse. This practice is attractive to employees who feel burned out. They’re resigned to never taking a day off or using vacation.

Burned-out employees are some of the likeliest to depart. Plus, turnover is an expensive hassle to solve. Leaveism is a money problem, but it’s also a human one.

How Can Companies Avoid Leaveism?

One of the most obvious steps a company can take is to hire more staff. The lean operation at any cost model delivers severely diminishing returns and unanticipated consequences, one of which is leaveism.

Hire managers who are empathetic and good at reading social cues. Managers should determine when workers are taking on too much but unwilling to speak up. Solicit honest, informal, and regular feedback from employees about how they’re functioning. Break away from the episodic personnel review model in favor of something that inspires.

Find ways to reassign work at times when it appears employees are struggling, and offer collaborative experiences to promote creativity. Be willing to move or spread specific tasks among multiple employees, and consider innovative challenges that break from the status quo.

Adopt flexible schedules and offer remote work opportunities to provide workers with the ability to achieve adequate work/life balance. Also, combat the always-on culture by encouraging employees to unplug on personal hours. Some countries even have laws against checking work e-mails during the weekends.

Recognize employees who do excellent work, and show them how their initiative has real-world impact. Appreciation can have significant effects on retention and morale. When possible, promote from within. Dedicated workers who put in the hours might feel snubbed or invisible when an outsider takes over. They believe, rightfully, that businesses should reward hard work. Try to place existing workers in open roles to showcase your commitment to advancement.

Treat Leaveism as a Symptom

Fighting leaveism in the workplace to develop a healthier balance between productivity and humanity is a two-way street.

This practice isn’t something employees should feel compelled to tolerate. Teach workers it’s OK to say no when asked to do more than they can handle. You should also promote peer collaboration. Employees should be able to reach out to a coworker they trust and ease the workload. If both are in a similar situation, they can brainstorm on a solution.

As employees build up hours, they earn vacation time. Advocate your expectations, and assure workers they’re entitled to time off. Set up a policy, such as a 2-week deadline, to make requests. Employees should know which answer to expect before they submit the paperwork. You should also assure workers that vacation time does not affect performance reviews.

America ranks poorly when it comes to advanced economies with work/life balance. For example, less than 0.5% of employees in the Netherlands work more than 50 hours per week, compared with 11% of workers in the United States. In Australia, workers rate their satisfaction with life at a 7.3 out of 10 compared with 6.9 in America.

Companies do not have to focus on productivity at the expense of employee well-being. Leaveism is a sign that organizations can and should do better.

Kayla Matthews, a technology journalist and human resources writer, has written for TalentCulture, The Muse, HR Technologist,, and more. For more by Matthews, follow @KaylaEMatthews on Twitter or visit her blog, Productivity Bytes.

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