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Why ‘leaveism’ is damaging for your workforce – and what you can do about it

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Ellie Taylor


You’ve probably heard of presenteeism – the phenomenon where over-worked employees stay in work beyond their allocated hours. But a growing body of research is indicating that another phenomenon – leaveism – is on the rise.


Leaveism occurs when employees use their annual leave to cover up for the fact that they are, in fact, unwell, or to catch up on work. Dr Ian Hesketh, a researcher at Manchester University, first coined the phrase in 2013 and an increasing number of studies are backing up his findings

A study published in Occupational Medicine in 2015, for example, found that a significant proportion of employees were taking annual leave when ill, rather than taking sick leave. Similarly, a Deloitte report, Mental Health and Employers: Refreshing the Case for Investment, found that 36% of employees were taking annual leave due to illness.

The scope of the issue should not be underestimated: research by the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, found that 63% of UK leaders had encountered leaveism in their business, while a 2016 report by the Chartered Management Institute found that the majority of UK managers spent an extra 29 days each year working outside of their allocated office hours.

The internet and mobile phones have only served to worsen this problem. Deloitte has stated that increased use of technology can make it hard for workers to unplug from an ‘always-on’ culture, meaning that they end up undertaking tasks such as responding to emails outside of their usual working hours.

What does it mean for employers?

As an over-stretched employer keen to meet targets, you might think this means you are getting maximum value from your employees – but in the long run, it’s bad for business. Leaveism can cause burn-out, declining productivity and mental health problems in your workforce.

Stress and mental health problems are a rising issue for UK businesses. A recent absence management study by the CIPD ranked stress and mental health conditions among the three leading causes of long-term absence from work. Over-working your employees can also lead to job dissatisfaction and increased staff turnaround.

On the other hand, creating a culture that supports mental health can reap dividends: a report by Deloitte, Mental health and employers: refreshing the case for investment, states that investing in mental health brings an average return of £5 for every £1 spent, while the Mental Health Foundation has said that better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year.

Did you know?

Insight Workplace Health offers comprehensive Mental Health Support to organisations. 

We also provide training in Mental Health First Aid (Wales) for any staff who wish to provide initial support for colleagues experiencing a mental health problem.

From a financial point of view alone, then, it is worth combating leaveism – and on top of that you’ll get reputational benefits, improved staff retention and a happier work environment. But what steps should you take to achieve this?

Here are 10 tips:

  1. Managers can help combat the ‘always on’ culture by discouraging staff from responding to emails outside of work hours, and by avoiding sending emails to staff when they are not in work. France enshrined this in law in 2017, ruling that companies with more than 50 employees must set out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

  2. Connect with your workforce: Ian Hesketh and Cary Cooper of Manchester University recommend that employers make regular ‘meaningful contact’ with their employees, discussing not just their work but also how they are feeling in general.

  3. Take a close look at the tasks each employee is expected to complete in their working week, day, or month. You may be surprised at what they have to cope with.

  4. Emphasise that holidays are good. Hesketh and Cooper recommend encouraging staff to take annual leave for holiday and rest time.

  5. Be mindful of how you distribute work, ensuring that adequate cover is available when employees are away. Sometimes leaveism is driven by an awareness that work will pile up while the employee is absent.

  6. Train your managers in the relevant interpersonal skills to handle discussions about stress, workload and time off.

  7. When taking a critical look at employees’ workload, take on board what you have discovered and be prepared to recruit extra staff to take pressure off those who are overloaded.

  8. Encourage openness about mental health in your workplace: ACAS recommends appointing mental health ‘champions’ that staff can talk to.

  9. Allow flexible working. One reason for leaveism is that employees find they can get more work done in the quiet home environment – so allow them to make use of this without having to resort to using their allocated leave.

  10. Provide mental health support for your team with the help of an Occupational Health provider such as Insight Workplace Health.

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