14 June 2024
Leaveism Persists Despite Rise in Flexible Working

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In a pre-pandemic February 2020 article for The Conversation, the phenomenon of ‘leaveism’ was explored in the context of flexible working. As the world soon entered into an unforeseen and massive work-from-home experiment due to COVID-19, the expectation was that flexible working might reduce ‘leaveism’. However, the persistence of ‘leaveism’ even with increased workplace flexibility remains a challenge for employees seeking happiness at work.

Leaveism’ and ‘presenteeism’ continue even when employers are more flexible. Here’s how to be happier at work

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Way back in February 2020, before most of us really knew anything about COVID, we wrote an article for The Conversation about “leaveism” and its impact on flexible working. Barely a month later, the world was bracing for a pandemic that would inadvertently create the largest (forced) working experiment of all time.

The Shift to Remote Work

This was a great opportunity for researchers like us to watch how working from home solved or exacerbated the workload problems that employees and managers had been dealing with face to face in the years before COVID. For many, the “workplace” was now the kitchen table or spare bedroom. The difference was there was no supervisory physical presence.

So, when the pandemic presented people with a golden opportunity to work remotely—and to some extent flexibly—it was fascinating to observe how the workforce responded. What we found was that working from home didn’t solve any problems, it merely moved them to a different location.

Leaveism and Presenteeism

We first coined the term “leaveism” in 2013 to explain some previously undescribed workplace practices. Leaveism refers to when employees take work home, work during vacation time, or work outside of regular working hours. As you can probably imagine, the pandemic and related lockdowns and restrictions to working practices had a significant impact on all of these practices. It also affected those ascribed to “presenteeism”, which is when you go into work but aren’t operating at your full potential because you’re unwell.

The New Working “Normal”

Now, as we emerge from the dark days of the pandemic, most companies are trying to decide what the new working “normal” will be: hybrid, remote, or calling everyone back to the office five days a week? Many firms will find that the most suitable option is highly idiosyncratic, depending on the organization, its employees, industry, and many other individual factors. But those choices are also likely to make a big difference to levels of sickness absence, presenteeism, and leaveism in today’s organizations.

The Impact on Work-Life Balance

Indeed, the speculations we made about taking work home in February 2020 are all pretty much the norm now, according to our latest research. These changes were triggered in an unexpected way, but nevertheless taking work home and juggling work and home life are now pretty much everyday business for most.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Remote Work

Our previous book, written during COVID lockdowns, documented perspectives from a number of different organizational settings. They all largely came to the same conclusions around homeworking during that time: there are advantages but also some negative aspects of home working and flexible working. For example, employees may find there are huge financial benefits in working just from home, saving on time and travel costs. Downsides may include inadequate space in the home to work, limitations with internet or other technological blockers.

The Effects of Lockdown on Workplaces

Our latest study, explained in our book Wellbeing at Work, examined the effects of lockdown on workplaces and how the balance has tilted from sickness absenteeism to sharp rises in presenteeism and leaveism. Other recent research also shows that, despite much more homeworking during and after pandemic lockdowns, 43% of people still experience presenteeism and slightly more (47%) leaveism. But managers are now far more conscious, or should be, of the effects of these phenomena in the workplace.

The Role of Leadership

And there are ways to help negate the impacts of these practices, both on the workforce and on businesses. Whether a line manager works in the same physical space as their employee or not, good leadership is key. Crucially, line managers need good emotional intelligence. That is, to understand how their employees are feeling and thinking about things that have an impact on their lives. Managers who have high levels of this (known as EQ) tend to have better relationships with their teams, which can lead to high levels of commitment and effort from them.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

Developing such vital “soft” skills helps managers find out what they need to know about the circumstances of their team members without making unwanted intrusions into their private lives. This seems like a difficult line to decipher, but for those who are adept at navigating it, the rewards are huge. Research shows that good line management can make the difference between having great days at work and having a miserable time. When the latter occurs, you may witness the emergence of leaveism and presenteeism. These are tell-tale signs that people may not be happy, feel uncomfortable, or are indeed thinking of leaving (usually measured as intentions to quit).

Final Thoughts

Having said all of this, employees are facing extraordinary challenges during this uncertain period for working lives. Organizations are managing shifts in policy in respect of remote versus office working. And the perfect combination is as yet unclear but depends on a host of personal circumstances. In this environment, opportunities for constructive development of employees can seem few and far between. But managers must think about the sustainability of their teams and invest wherever possible in things that will help create more good days at work than bad for everyone.


1. What is leaveism and presenteeism?

Leaveism refers to when employees take work home, work during vacation time, or work outside of regular working hours. Presenteeism is when employees go into work but aren’t operating at their full potential because they’re unwell.

2. How has the shift to remote work affected leaveism and presenteeism?

The shift to remote work during the pandemic has had a significant impact on leaveism and presenteeism. While the location of work may have changed, the problems associated with these practices have not been solved.

3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of remote work?

Advantages of remote work include financial benefits, such as saving on time and travel costs. However, there can be downsides, such as inadequate space to work and limitations with internet or other technological blockers.

4. How can leadership help mitigate the impacts of leaveism and presenteeism?

Good leadership, particularly with high emotional intelligence, is key to mitigating the impacts of leaveism and presenteeism. Line managers who understand their employees’ feelings and thoughts can build better relationships and foster commitment and effort from their teams.

5. What can organizations do to create a positive work environment?

Organizations should invest in creating more good days at work than bad for their employees. This involves thinking about the sustainability of their teams and providing opportunities for constructive development.

Links to additional Resources:

Mind Tools – Understanding Presenteeism Harvard Business Review – When Flexible Work Isn’t Flexible Enough Psychology Today – Leaveism: The Dark Side of 21st Century Flexible Working

Related Wikipedia Articles

Topics: Remote work, Presenteeism, Emotional intelligence

Remote work
Remote work (also called telecommuting, telework, work from home—or WFH as an initialism, hybrid work, and other terms) is the practice of working from one's home or another space rather than from an office. The practice began on a small scale in the 1970s, when technology was developed that linked...
Read more: Remote work

Presenteeism or working while sick is the act or culture of employees continuing to work as a performative measure, despite having reduced productivity levels or negative consequences. Reduced productivity during presenteeism is often due to illness, injury, exhaustion, or other conditions, but presenteeism can also describe working while contagiously sick,...
Read more: Presenteeism

Emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognize their own emotions and those of others, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to...
Read more: Emotional intelligence

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