Going on leave doesn’t always mean disconnecting

Surveys show the prevalence of workers taking work with them on holiday. Also, a rising number of UK staff show up to work sick.

Work/life balance appears to be increasingly skewed towards the office amid a general rise in both presenteeism and leaveism.

Leaveism can mean that workers fail to disconnect themselves from work while on holiday, often checking company email through remote devices.

It doesn't stop there, though. Presenteeism, where we turn up for work when ill, is also on the increase.

A recent survey of UK companies from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that presenteeism had more than tripled since 2010.

Eighty-six per cent of over 1,000 HR professionals had witnessed presenteeism in their organisation over the past 12 months, compared with 72% in 2016 and 26% in 2010.

Over two-thirds of respondents (69%) to the Health and Well-being at Work survey also reported that leaveism had occurred in their organisation over the past year.

The latest survey was carried out in November 2017, with the results published in May.

"Increasingly, the threats to wellbeing in the modern workplace are psychological rather than physical, and yet too few organisations are discouraging unhealthy workplace practices and tackling stress," Rachel Suff, an employment specialist at CIPD, said in a news release.

Culture and management

Douglas Slaybaugh, CPA, CGMA, a Denver-based career coach, believes the level of presenteeism or leaveism in an organisation tends to be related to its culture and management.

"If your boss is going to come to work after undergoing a round of chemotherapy, it sets a tone for the employees to do the same," he said. "If the owner emails while on vacation, or emails the staff while they are on vacation, it similarly sets the tone for the employee. If the partner doesn't have time to mow their own lawn or for their son's baseball game, why would your time be more important?"

At the same time, the CIPD survey suggests the apparent tilting of the work/life balance may be counterproductive for the companies. Amid rising levels of presenteeism, there has also been an increase in employee absence.

The average level of employee absence rose to 6.6 days per employee per year, an increase from 6.3 in 2016, according to the CIPD survey.


Increased presenteeism is linked to increases in common mental health conditions as well as stress-related absence, according to CIPD, which said such conditions are among the top causes of long-term sickness absence.

Raju Venkataraman, FCMA, CGMA, a Singapore-based executive coach, said a distinction should be drawn between the two trends.

"Presenteeism is short-sighted and can cause or aggravate physical health problems as well as stress," he said. "If leaveism refers to people forgoing annual leave and working instead, I decry that. However, if leaveism refers to spending a 'little time' on work-related matters during days of vacation, I'm not so sure that's so bad."

A survey of US workers by US recruitment agency Accountemps found that 70% of workers ages 18 to 34 maintain some sort of work contact while on holiday. This compared to 39% of workers ages 55 and above.

Michael Steinitz, executive director for Accountemps, said that "totally disconnecting" from the office could add stress for certain people.

"Some workers enjoy greater peace of mind when they allow themselves to check in a few times — but not much more than that — while on vacation," he said in a news release. "Doing so confirms that all is well, which allows them to stop worrying and focus on relaxing instead."

Anoop Mehta, CPA, CGMA, is one leader who likes to check in with the office while away. He said checking email and replying quickly where needed can keep processes going.

Technology advances

The impact of mobile devices can be good and bad, according to CIPD.

"Advances in technology are generally seen to have more of a positive than negative impact on employee wellbeing," the CIPD news release said. "However, almost nine in ten respondents call out employees' inability to switch off out of work hours as the most common negative effect of technology on wellbeing."

The survey found only a minority of organisations were taking steps to tackle the "unhealthy work practices" of presenteeism and leaveism.

Lead by example

Venkataraman believes employers need to take a stand against presenteeism, with management leading by example.

"Good leaders should convey this unambiguously to their people and work with the HR team to build a culture that discourages presenteeism and does not penalise or pressurise people who are unable to attend work when they're genuinely ill," he said.

In contrast, leaveism may be something of a grey area; organisations that have developed a policy on it appear to favour giving employees some discretion.

For instance, German automaker Daimler created a "mail on holiday" email policy in 2014. It gives employees the option to set their emails to autodelete while away from the office.

In France, a law that took effect in 2017 gives employees there the right to disconnect from electronic devices once their scheduled work day ends.

— James Hester is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at