Professor Cary Cooper has raised the alarm over the phenomenon of ‘leavism’: workers booking holiday time only to spend it focusing largely on work-related tasks they haven’t been able to cover off in office hours.
In a 17 February article at The Telegraph,  the prominent organisational psychologist frames leavism as “the new presenteeism”, citing research from his team at Manchester Business School estimating that, at some point, up to half of UK workers have claimed to be on leave, when in fact they have been using that time to catch up on work.
In addition, Cooper cites CIPD research of 2018  stating that more than a third of UK staffers have used some of their annual leave to provide themselves with time off when they are sick, to ensure they don’t use too many actual sick days – thereby averting the risk of having poor track records on illness. And in an earlier article on the problem for Metro,  Cooper and his associate Ian Hesketh of the National Health and Wellbeing Forum highlight recent research from Deloitte  showing that 70% of workers who have witnessed presenteeism in their organisations have also observed leaveism.
Cooper explained to The Telegraph that he first identified leavism several years ago in a study that examined shifts in the working habits of a northern police force, in the wake of personnel cuts that led to the departure of 22,000 officers. Published back in 2014,  the study noted: “Leaveism … is a hidden source of potential abstractions from the workplace, and could impact enormously on organisational effectiveness. The motivation for the practice is unclear, and could be a manifestation of loyalty, enjoyment or duty. It could also be construed as a reaction to fear of job loss, redundancy or downgrade.”
Such fear-based responses, Cooper pointed out, are still prevalent today.
“We are in an era where people are much more afraid of losing their jobs than in the past,” he said. “Companies have been operating in a low-growth environment for the past decade, which has meant more focus on profitability – including labour costs. People want to be perceived as being on top of their work and job. The way to do that is to cover all the bases and use their leave for work or sickness.”
What should organisations do to tackle this malaise?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I think this is rather more than a malaise, actually. We’ve been exhorted for so long to work smarter, not harder, to do more with less and to use technology to be more efficient – and those messages have combined to become the dominant discourse within organisations. But the leavism phenomenon would suggest that certain inefficiencies are being absorbed differently. So, if people are having to take time off work in order to catch up on work, it shows that those inefficiencies aren’t being addressed within the specific terms of the metrics that are being measured.”
Cooper comments: “Whatever Cary Cooper does is invariably interesting, and he always seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of shedding light on where we’re heading next. For a long time, he was talking about mental health at work when few others were – and one need only take a cursory glance at these latest findings to picture the wellbeing impacts of leavism. Modern organisations are enticing people with the promise of great pay, conditions and holiday arrangements – but those same workers are finding that they are unable to take their leave honestly and authentically because of their workloads.”
She notes: “What’s really key here is long-term sustainability – and we’re simply not sustaining businesses if we’re having to cram a series of inefficiencies into leave time. The impact on the individuals who feel that this is the only way they can cope will soon become intolerable, because those people are hiding it, they’re not talking about it and they’re afraid of asking for support. In other words, all of the factors that contribute to burnout are manifesting themselves in these sorts of practices.
“So, what can we do about it? Well, some people like to check in with work when they’re on holiday because the anxiety of not checking in can feel worse than that of getting involved. In time-poor organisations, is it really possible for everyone to pass on handover notes before they go on holiday? It’s certainly a good idea, but not everyone will have time – especially as we tend to have so many tasks to address before we go on leave, and completing them often goes right down to the wire.
“However,” Cooper explains, “we can manage leave in other ways – and one constructive approach is to really think about who could step up in someone’s absence and gain new experiences by taking on that person’s brief. It’s a much better option than storing up the work for a couple of weeks and telling clients that they’ll get answers to their queries when the relevant individual is back at their desk. That’s not helping anyone, and doesn’t really count as leave – in fact, it’s more like another form of flexible working.
“So let’s look very carefully at how we are managing leave, and ensuring that it really is leave. And let’s all understand that if our people are having to take leave to catch up on work, that raises a big red flag over our management.”
For further thoughts on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on time management