Pallavi Varma often works six or seven days a week on call as part of her job working for a travel company. The 24-year-old Indian content creator works hard while juggling her studies at a local university.
And sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
“I sometimes find the need to catch up with work on Sundays or on public holidays in order to make up for lost time,” she says.
She doesn’t feel too bad about doing so – it allows her to work more efficiently, she reckons, because she feels less pressure when she’s not working in an office environment. “My results are vastly improved when I work on my downtime,” Varma says.
She’s not the only one. Nutrition and fitness expert Tom Jenane, who lives in Brighton in the UK, took his first holiday to catch up on work last year. He was juggling other duties alongside writing descriptions of the products sold at the company he works for, and found he just wasn’t getting it all done during his working day.
“I took the day off to sit at home and write up the product descriptions,” he says. “I woke up naturally, made myself a coffee and set myself up on the sofa with the laptop, playing music in the background.”
Away from the distractions of a pinging inbox, watercooler chat with colleagues and the stresses of office life, the work Jenane, 31, had been struggling with for ages took him a day to complete.
But it required him to use up a precious day’s annual leave.
Jenane and Varma exemplify leaveism - where employees feel compelled to take use their time off to catch up on their workload, free from the distractions of the office.
From credit crunch to workload crisis
“I suspect it’s always existed in some shape or form for salaried, professional workers,” says James Richards, associate professor in human resource management at Heriot-Watt University, who is undertaking a widescale survey on the proliferation of leaveism. “You have a notional contract but there’s an expectation to meet fluctuating deadlines and demand.”
Nearly two-thirds of human resource professionals at UK businesses have seen examples of leaveism in the last year, according to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). And the numbers are rising.
“We’re seeing more of this, because since the [last] recession most organisations got mean and lean,” explains Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School and president of the CIPD. “We’re only beginning to realise how big an issue this is.”
Cooper estimates that around a third of employees worldwide have taken time off work to catch up with their backlog, and worries that it becomes more likely in the event of another recession.
The number of people without a job increased from 178 million in 2007 ( pre-financial crisis) to 205 million in 2009, according to the United Nations. With it, attitudes to work changed.
“Less is more” became the motto of the post-recession world. But with fewer people covering the same volume of work, workloads can quickly become untenable.
“It’s simply the reality of knowing how much could be achieved and battling to fit it all into the day,” says Jenane. “We could have a team of 100 and there would still be more work to be completed.”
However, all sides in the employment equation continue to try and muddle through.
‘I would like to make a good impression’
“If you’re feeling insecure, you’re going to make sure you’re working all the time and you’re indispensable,” says Cooper. “You’re going to send emails at night, working at night. You’re not going to take as much holiday time or if you do take a holiday, the family go on the holiday but the parents, both men and women, are working by the pool.”
More importantly, workers aren’t going to mention they’re doing it.
“I would like to make a good impression on the company and my clients, as long as the load is not negatively affecting my results,” Varma explains. That’s despite the fact that she believes her employers “are very understanding and empathetic”. “If anything, they insist I take more breaks - but I have a perfectionism issue,” she says.
Admitting that your workload is too great could mark you out as not up to the job – singling you out for sacking in a precarious workforce.
The problem is growing – and businesses show little interest in tackling it. While 63% of UK businesses surveyed by the CIPD have seen leaveism, more than half of them haven’t tried to tackle the problem.
“This is all about line managers,” says Cooper. “One solution to this problem of people doing leaveism is having more socially sensitive, more empathic line managers.”
Training on how to deal with employees struggling with their workload, and how to foster a supportive workplace that encourages workers to raise concerns about their volume of labour, is vital.
"Managers should be helping to alleviate stress among their staff, not contributing to it,” says Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD. “But too many managers are being set up to fail because they haven’t received adequate training, despite them often being the first person employees will turn to when they have a problem.”
A quarter of businesses that have experienced leaveism told the CIPD they were taking steps to discourage it – often by providing better support for employees.
Managing work-life balance
Still, some employers understand the risk of leaveism among their workers. Varma discussed her workload with her boss and the company itself expanded, allowing additional hiring.
Her workload has since been split with a colleague. “My employer recognises that I have a lot of workload, allows me to set my own pace, and has also allowed me to hire a paid intern to reduce my work,” she says.
When Jenane returned to work after his day of leaveism, the reason he took the holiday came up in conversation with his manager. “He was obviously really upset to hear I had spent my time working rather than relaxing,” Jenane explains. “I understand what he means, it’s important you don’t push yourself too hard, as you don’t want to suffer burn out and your work-life balance is important.”
That’s vital, says Cooper. “I think leaveism is a problem we can overcome,” he says.
“We need to convince senior people that actually our productivity will be improved if we get better balance,” Cooper adds. “If we work people to death, not only will they burn out, but there is no evidence that it produces higher productivity.”
Jenane’s boss told him not to take leave to catch up on work again, and to come and talk to him if he had issues with his workload.
Jenane listened – but didn’t learn. He’s since taken another day’s holiday to catch up on more write-ups for the company’s website. “[My boss] doesn’t know,” he says. “But that might change with this article.”