Workplace mental health: What is leaveism?

Workplace mental health: Leaveism absenteeism and presenteeism - how wellbeing at work affects attendance and Tips for coping by The Skill Collective counsellors and psychologists in Subiaco Perth

Workplace mental health: What is leaveism?

By Joyce Chong

Modern life can be stressful and challenging. Throw in a global pandemic with (i) Job insecurity; (ii) Increased workload with fewer resources; and (iii) An increased blurring between work and home lives (working from home, anyone?), is it any wonder we are seeing a workforce with increasing levels of stress and poorer mental health? When it comes to employees feeling unwell in the workplace, we often think of of absenteeism (where we aren’t at work and aren’t engaged with work) and presenteeism (where we are at work but aren’t engaged with work) as being the main indications. However, leaveism is increasingly coming to the fore in our understanding of workplace absence, overload, and worker wellbeing. 

In this article we’ll cover:

  • What is leaveism

  • Why does leaveism occur?

  • The problem with leaveism

  • What can be done about leaveism?

what is leaveism?

How do you know if you are guilty of leaveism? Have you ever found yourself [1]:

  • Feeling unwell, but rather than taking sick leave, you used annual leave, flexi-time or time off in lieu banked, instead? (you might even have worked whilst unwell!).

  • Taking work home to complete at night or on weekends that could not be completed in usual working hours.

  • Working whilst on holidays to catch up on work obligations.

If this sounds all too familiar, then you’re not alone. Leavesism was a term coined by Ian Hesketh and Cary Cooper when they sought to enhance our understanding of how absenteeism and presenteeism fit in the bigger picture of employee wellbeing, workload, and leave.


In an ideal world leaveism would not be an issue. We would have manageable workloads that we could complete within our time at work. We would feel okay to have a mental health day to recharge when we felt overwhelmed. And we would be okay to leave uncompleted tasks to the next work day. But there are reasons why leaveism prevails: [2]


Job security and increased workload

With Covid-19, job security and financial security are becoming increasing concerns. Workloads may have been redistributed so that fewer employees are doing more, and with fewer resources. Constant connection also means we are readily available, likely all hours of the day. Working from home means this boundary is further blurred.

Due to job insecurity, most of us are trying to keep up with performance and output so as to minimise reasons for job losses should another round of redundancies occur. In order to stay ahead of the pack, many are putting excessive hours in to stay competitive; unwilling to speak up when a workload is excessive, or when targets are unrealistic.


Stigma and work culture

The resulting increased workload and hours worked is a recipe for stress, burnout, and poor mental health. In an ideal world we would take sick leave - a mental health day - so we can recharge our batteries and boost our resilience. However we may feel disinclined to take time off for mental health purposes, or to use our sick leave at all, due to perceptions of ‘old school’ workplaces that view poor mental health as personal failures, or worrying that taking sick leave (even under the guise of a physical ailment) might lead to the questioning of one’s commitment to work. Thus employees may end up taking annual leave, or rostered time off (or time off in lieu) instead.

There may also be pressure to be seen to cope with it all, in spite of workloads being objectively unrealistic. What this leads to, though, is people using their time outside of work to ‘catch up’ on their workload, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. This leaves a workforce that is always focused on work, and not refreshed and recharged.


The problem with leaveism is manifold, for employees and organisations:

  • The true workload is hidden and resourcing inadequacies are exacerbated. Without an accurate picture, employers won’t know what resourcing is actually required, and employees end up doing more. Say, for example, you are employed at 0.5FTE but you are ‘catchiing up’ and working at 1.0 FTE and slowly burning out. Because you are still completing the work, your organisation might see that the 0.5FTE as being adequate resourcing for the project, particularly if the issue hasn’t been raised with them.

  • Personal costs to the employees as stress, burnout, and disengagement occur. This can lead to self-doubt, self-esteem, and detachment from the role.

  • Organisational costs following employees being disengaged from their roles and the organisation, in the forms of absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover. These set the organisation back in terms of meeting targets in a timely fashion. The reputation of the organisation may also suffer as a consequence, as work culture can be a deterrent to prospective employees.


There are things that organisations (and individuals) can do to help keep leaveism at bay. Some great tips for organisations from Deloitte include:

  • Clear expectations and the importance of switching off outside of work.

  • Adequate resourcing and managing of workflow and workloads.

  • Championing the importance of breaks as tools for productivity. Resting, re-setting, and balancing work with play are all important for an engaged and productive workforce.

  • Address stigma when it comes to mental health as a barrier to taking sick leave and speaking up about unrealistic workloads and burnout.


As for individuals, here are some ways to tackle leaveism:

  • Mindset is the key, as is setting boundaries with yourself. There will always be another task that could be done, another thing to ‘get on top of’. At some point in time you will have to set a boundary so that your body and mind can rest and recuperate and do those things that make you more resilient. If perfectionism and social comparison are key to you being unable to switch off, perhaps have a chat with your mental health professional to work on this underlying issue.

  • Communicate with your manager about your workload. If you don’t tell them they won’t know. Your after-hours work is likely invisible to them –  what is visible to them is that the work was able to be completed within the time frame set, and ably handled by you.

  • Change your environment to change your behaviour. Log out of work apps and turn off alerts. Set up out-of-office replies for when you’re away or outlining those days during the week that you work.

Importantly, what is the cost to you? Your relationships and friendships? Your wellbeing? And, is it worth it? If you’re finding it hard to leave leaveism behind, contact us to book in for some one-on-one assistance.

Tips to help cope and adjust to stress and overwhelm by The Skill Collective psychologists and counsellors in Subiaco Perth

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[1] Hesketh, I., & Cooper, C.L. (2014). Leavism at work. Occupational medicine, 4, 146-147.

[2] Deloitte (2020). Mental health and employers: Refreshing the case for investment.