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‘Leaveism’ — the new curse of the workplace

We are close to accepting a tech-enabled, 24-7 working culture from which it is increasingly difficult to switch off

Readers will be familiar with ‘presenteeism’, and may even have experienced it in a workplace. It’s where employees spend many more hours at the workplace than necessary — usually to impress a boss or as part of an unhelpful ritual not to be the first to leave the office.

 Presenteeism damages productivity, and many companies now work actively to stamp it out. But occupational psychologists have now spotted a new phenomenon: Employees using annual leave or other work entitlements, such as banked flexi-hours, to go off sick or to look after a relative or dependent. Academics in the University of Manchester called it ‘leaveism’.

As part of the same category, they also included employees taking work home that can’t be completed in normal working hours, or catching-up on work while on leave or holiday. And the phenomenon seems to be getting more common.

A recent Deloitte report, Mental Health and Employers: Refreshing the Case for Investment, took a deeper look. It found that 51 per cent of employees were working outside contracted hours and 36 per cent were taking allocated time off when they were, in fact, unwell. It also noted that 70 per cent of respondents who had witnessed presenteeism in their organisation had also observed leaveism.

It’s all linked to the so-called ‘gig economy’. Gone are the days of permanent, pensionable jobs for life. We have entered an era of portfolio employment, where the average worker cannot be sure there won’t be periods of unemployment between a portfolio of jobs. As a result, we live in an era where people are a lot more fearful of losing their jobs than in the past. Add in the prospect of more and more jobs being automated in the coming years and you have the beginnings of a perfect storm.

Bosses aren’t immune from these cold winds either. As a result, they are micro-managing their employees and not giving them enough autonomy and control at work. A 2015 Austrian study concluded that employees were more likely to use annual leave to go off sick if they fear losing their jobs or having them downgraded, or if they were experiencing low job satisfaction.

Compounding this sense of unhappiness at work is how technology is affecting people’s ability to switch off out of working hours. We are close to accepting a tech-enabled, 24-7 working culture from which it is increasingly difficult to switch off. Work-life balance is becoming a thing of the past. For many people, it is being superseded by work-life integration.

Unsurprisingly, this makes it hard to switch off and relax. Stress and mental ill health account for 57 per cent of all long-term absences from work, having replaced physical complaints as the main reason employees are off sick.

A just published report by the Mater Private Hospital Group gives us a snapshot of how all of this is playing out in Ireland. Healthy Working analyses how diet, exercise, and work-life balance affect Irish workers’ physical and mental health. It shows that the Irish workforce are slow to heed medical guidance, with almost three-in-10 respondents continuing to work while sick, despite being advised by their GP to take a break. Almost one-in-five of those surveyed said they had a poor work-life balance. About half said this was because they were expected to work outside normal hours, while 21 per cent said that they were ‘always on’ and available to their employer.

Almost 20 per cent of employees said they do not take their full holiday allocation. Of those who don’t, 34 per cent said they are afraid their workload will increase and another third claim that there is no-one to manage their workload while they are away. But a third of employers provided access to flexible working, with almost one-in-10 offering on-site exercise classes or massage treatment.

It’s a long way from these kind of perks us medics were reared. Coming from a training culture of 60-to-100 hour weeks, the European Working Time Directive has had limited success in making rotas more employee-friendly. And when doctors strike out into independent practice, they find the demands of running a medical business means nights and weekends are invaded by a need to catch up on ever- mounting paperwork.

We need to consciously mind our health as the “always on” work culture continues to erode our lives. It won’t be easy, but it’s important we find the time to take care of ourselves.

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