Bringing your work home takes on a whole new meaning
As well as taking time off to complete work, workers are also taking annual rather than sick leave when ill
Numerous studies carried out in recent years show many of us are working too much. From responding to emails late in the evening to bringing projects home to complete at the weekend, some employees struggle to leave their work behind them.
Such behaviour, however, pales into insignificance when compared to that of those who, overwhelmed by the amount they need to do, are taking holidays to catch up on their workloads.
The phenomenon, known as “leaveism” has been uncovered by Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School and the recently elected president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). CIPD is a body for HR professionals with 135,0000 members worldwide, including about 6,000 in Ireland.
Prof Cooper has based his work on research he originally undertook into resilience among serving officers at Lancashire Police, one of the biggest forces in the UK. He has found that leaveism, a practice in which individuals take annual leave to complete work at home that cannot be finished during regular working hours, is rife, particularly in the public sector.
The original study, entitled Leaveism and Work-Life Integration: the Thinning Blue Line, revealed that 76 per cent of police officers surveyed had used holiday time to finish off work that had not be done.
In addition, those who had done this generally also worked longer hours than colleagues who did not use their annual leave in this way. As well as taking time off to complete work, one-third of respondents had also taken annual leave rather than sick leave when ill or injured.
Prof Cooper claims the study findings are likely to be repeated across the public sector in the UK due to the introduction of sweeping changes there in recent years.
He also believes that, if surveyed, the public sector in Ireland would show similar results, as would the private sector, to a lesser extent.
“One of the ways we’ve been measuring stress in the workplace is looking at absenteeism and presenteeism – where people turn up to work, despite being unwell.
“What we discovered in doing this with Lancashire Police and a number of other forces is that a high proportion of people were taking annual leave to do their work because they were so overloaded they couldn’t fit everything in during regular working hours. From there, we started to look at public services more generally and the same picture emerged,” Prof Cooper tells The Irish Times.
“During the recession, there were a lot of cutbacks in the public sector in both the UK and Ireland and, because of recruitment moratoriums, there were fewer people doing more work. And that situation largely remains.
“Many of those still in the public sector are too frightened to admit they can’t fulfil their duties because their managers will think they are incompetent and possibly line them up next for the axe,” he adds. “So the solution that many of these people have come up with is to take time off and do their work during their holidays.
While economic recovery means the pressure has lessened somewhat in the last year or two, Prof Cooper believes the way we work has fundamentally changed since the downturn, leaving many of us in insecure jobs and therefore, prone to becoming victims of leaveism.
“The psychological contract that once existed between employer and employee has changed. Before the recession the contract was very much ‘you work hard, you’ve got a job and you’ve got it for life’. That is no longer the case.
“Employers now demand commitment but are no longer prepared to give you back a commitment that your job is safe. In this environment, it is easy to see how employees could resort to taking annual leave off to do their work, rather than risk upsetting their employer,” he says.
Should we care?
While acknowledging it is unfortunate for those concerned, should we care if some employees are so afraid of upsetting their employer that they would rather work through their holiday time than admit they can’t do it all?
Prof Cooper firmly believes we should, pointing out that the costs associated with underperforming employees is phenomenal.
“Individuals engaging in leaveism think that it will help them catch up, but all it is really going to lead to is burnout in the end.”
The concept of leaveism doesn’t currently appear within sickness absence reporting mechanisms, and Prof Cooper and his colleagues would like to see it included as they believe it may have a significant impact on both individual and organisational performance.
Ironically, the publication of the study into leaveism coincided with a new UK- based survey from gocompare.com, which found that a fifth of employees would “sell” back their holiday entitlement to their employer if possible with one in five respondents saying they did not have the time to go anywhere because of heavy workloads.
Niall Shanahan, communications officer with Impact, the largest trade union in Ireland, says he has come across anecdotal evidence to suggest that leaveism is occurring in the public sector here, but it doesn’t appear to be widely recognised.
Separately, Kara McGann, a senior labour market policy executive at the lobby group Ibec says she is unfamiliar with the concept.
It is also a new one on Dr Carol Linehan, director of the MA in work and organisational psychology at University College Cork (UCC), although she notes that many of the so-called symptoms of leaveism mirror those symptoms for absenteeism and presenteeism.
“There’s little systematic work been done to determine whether this is anything beyond anecdotal, but the data from the police study suggests it is an issue,” Dr Linehan says.
“One thing to consider is that it may be hard to capture the actual rates of leaveism because those taking time off to work are unlikely to readily admit to it. If it is part of a trend in terms of worrying about job insecurity or low staffing levels however, then it is a real concern and one that employers need to be aware of.”
As far as Dublin-based organisational and business psychologist Clare Mulligan is concerned, we may only be beginning to hear about leaveism but it is not something that is necessarily new.
“Over the last decade or so, a huge number of employees got used to taking a bit of work home and, on top of that, an increasing number of us are working away from the office for some part of the week, all which all goes to blur the line between work and home. We are now in the era of knowledge workers where we don’t need to be ‘in work’ to do work.
“Given this, it isn’t a huge leap from doing an extra hour or two at home at the weekend to leaveism,” she says.
Mulligan adds that technology is also helping to blur the boundaries between our home and working lives. She urges employers to do more to help support staff so they can have enought time out to recuperate away from work.
“We need to support a work-life balance for all employees and ensure everyone – including leaders – adhere to a culture of supporting this balance by making real changes so that workers have proper downtime.” she says.