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Words like ‘presenteeism’ and ‘leaveism’ have been circulating with greater frequency over the last 18 months, exacerbated as the situations they describe have been by the effects of the pandemic. But have you ever paused to reflect on what they mean? In what follows we will zoom in on these two important workplace concepts, delving into their causes as well as what possible steps employers can take to reduce the risks of them occurring in your workplace.

Presenteeism and the rise of ‘always on’ culture

Presenteeism was first introduced to the British language in 1996 by Professor Cary Cooper to describe someone at work who is not providing their full potential due to an illness. As shown by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), cases of presenteeism have risen in recent years, with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reporting that 86% of HR professionals have observed presenteeism in their companies.

As the culture of long working hours has risen, we can see that 91% of white-collar workers are working more than their contracted hours, with an average of 42 hours a week in 2018, suggesting why presenteeism is on the rise; people are finding it harder to stop work, even when their physical and mental health is being negatively impacted.

There is a fine line, however, between presenteeism and leaveism – a term first coined by Dr Ian Hesketh, a researcher at Manchester university. 

Leaveism and the constant need to catch up

Leaveism is a more recent phenomenon in the workplace environment, with the term only being introduced in 2013. However, according to the CIPD, we can already see 63% of HR professionals noticing a culture of leaveism in their workplace environments. Leaveism is the term used to describe employees using their allocated leave for reasons other than to take a break from work. These reasons can be:  

  • Employees using annual leave, flexi-hours or re-rostered rest days when they are unwell
  • Employees working outside of contracted hours
  • Employees using allocated time off to catch up on work.

As both the culture of long working hours has risen, as well as an ‘always on’ attitude, meaning work emails and contact may infringe on home life, leaveism and subsequent presenteeism have been on the rise in many businesses.

What are the causes of presenteeism and leaveism?

One of the biggest factors shaping presenteeism and leaveism is the rise in a culture of expectation to deliver. This has led to it being harder for employees to acknowledge when they need a day of rest.

Presenteeism and leaveism are also affected by an increase in heavy workloads, with people struggling to complete their allotted tasks in the hours given to them, meaning they are more likely to take the work home and continue it in their own time.

According to a survey by Morgan McKinley, 90% of those who do work in their overtime do not receive any form of additional compensation for their hours, suggesting that a culture of leaveism is not economically beneficial to the employee. An increased stigma around having days off work for ill health is also another significant factor in the rise of presenteeism and leaveism, with research by Deloitte showing that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year. These costs are largely driven by presenteeism rather than absence in the workplace.

As UK employees are finding it more difficult to ask for time off – whether that be due to workplace stigma, or self-stigmatisation surrounding ill health – the cost of their subsequent work at a less than full capacity leads to significant costs to the business.

So, what can be done to reduce presenteeism and leaveism?

When trying to reduce presenteeism and leaveism, commitment at the management and leadership levels is essential. Below you will find 7 ways in which leaders and managers can ensure a healthier working environment for their employees:

  1. Role-modelling healthier practices in the workplace
  2. Monitoring and discussing workloads with employees
  3. Invoking a ‘send home’ rule, where ill members of staff are encouraged to go home if under the weather
  4. Changing the ‘always on’ attitude, so people are not working excessive hours
  5. Training a team of wellbeing champions in the workplace who understand the causes and impacts of presenteeism and leaveism, and who can support their colleagues
  6. Providing training for line managers on how to identify and deal with this behaviour
  7. Making efforts to instil a positive work culture in which employees feel supported at management level.

When tackling presenteeism and leaveism, it is important to understand what factors might drive an employee to come into work in spite of poor health.

By encouraging a more open conversation surrounding health and wellbeing in the workplace, it is more likely that employees will feel more able to speak up if they are struggling with the current workload, creating a more comfortable and efficient working environment.

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