By Hannah Kaiser

The concept of leavism is relatively new within work psychology research. It has gained traction in recent years as understanding of what the ‘workplace’ looks like has shifted to include more than just one physical office space. And, although researchers are still exploring the construct of leavism, as well as the emerging links between causes and effects of such behaviors, it is clear that engaging in leavism can lead to many negative consequences. 

Leavism was originally used in research literature to describe employees taking allocated sick leave when they were sincerely unwell. Since then, the concept has expanded to include more, sometimes problematic, behaviors. Richards et al. (2023) outline them in their exploratory article on leavism. The patterns that should be of concern to organizations are (1) employees having to take work home that they couldn’t finish during normal hours, and (2) employees spending their allocated off-days catching up with work. The results of the article show clear links between leavism and outcomes such as burnout, anxiety, harmful workplace conflict, decreased work quality, job dissatisfaction, and detrimental effects on work-life balance.   

Although these negative outcomes can happen to anyone who is doing excessive work, the involuntary nature of leavism behaviors (feeling the need to take work home) is what should set off alarm bells for potential adverse outcomes. Leaders should keep an eye out for anyone who is engaging in leavism (including themselves). 

What causes leavism? 

There are many potential causes of leavism. However, according to Richards et al.’s (2023) work, there are a few recurring sources for the problem: 

  • Work Intensification. Expectations for employees may be too high. Perhaps your company is short-staffed. Or maybe you have some management policies that make it untenable for employees to maintain their well-being along with their normal performance quality. Factors of work intensification can lead to a workload and/or work styles that force people in your company to take on extra hours outside of work in order to meet their goals. 
  • The Ideal Worker. Norms in your organization may lead to people feeling pressured to take on more work than necessary. Is there a sense that employees should always be available? Is it subtly frowned upon to not stay for an extra hour after your official shift has ended? Even if these norms aren’t codified formally, peer pressure can influence people to follow them anyway. 
  • Communication Technology. Even beyond email, the rise of workplace productivity apps like Slack have made it easier than ever for us to have instant access to anyone we work with whenever and wherever we want. It’s convenient, but it can easily cause stress. Without any boundary agreements on when it’s appropriate to message each other, these technologies can lead to us feeling harassed by messages reminding us of deadlines, leaving it much harder to ‘switch off’ from work. 

What can organizations do about leavism?

There are many methods an organization can use to solve leavism. Even if you aren’t currently experiencing leavism in your company, it might be a good idea to make some of these improvements anyway to prevent it from happening in the first place. It’s always a good idea to stop burnout from happening rather than to try fixing it after the fact. 

  • Allow Employees to Speak Up. Make sure employees know they don’t have to worry about retaliation if they need to voice concerns about role expectations. Simply having managers encourage their team to bring up these issues could be a good place to start. This step will be especially important if your organization already has norms that place value on extra work and constant availability (the ‘ideal worker’ norm). 
  • Build Realistic Goals. Don’t simply assume a particular deadline gives someone ‘plenty of time.’ Collaborate directly with employees to determine realistic expectations for what gets accomplished, and when. Additionally, if you have some management policies exacerbating the issue of work intensification (e.g., a just-in-time strategy), it could be necessary to adjust those strategies to be more flexible. 
  • Ensure Policies Protect Employees. Create and then clearly communicate organizational expectations for communication outside of work hours. Perhaps establish that employees aren’t expected to respond to any emails over the weekend. Maybe it will be necessary to ban sending emails at all during certain times, barring an emergency. Make sure there are formal policies in place that enforce these expectations so no one can ignore the guidelines and pester their team off-hours anyway. 
  • Model Good Behavior. Even if policies are put into place to discourage too much off-hours communication, the behavior of leaders may set norms that continue to influence employee behavior. If a team manager consistently sends immediate answers when they don’t have to, their team will likely feel pressured to always be ready to respond at all times as well. As a leader, you may want to follow the company policy, even if you personally don’t experience problems with off-hours communication.  
  • Encourage Employees to Disconnect. Employees have allocated time off for a reason. Outright encourage employees to make use of this time, and remind them to ‘switch off’ from work while they are away. 

Following these guidelines, whether you have noticed leavism behaviors or not, should benefit the well-being and work quality of your organization overall. 

What can you do for yourself?  

Some of us have a personality or disposition that drives us to do excessive work. If you notice you are engaging in leavism, it might be smart to adjust your habits before you find yourself burned out. Here are a few tips you can use to avoid these damaging behaviors:

  • Identify Your Turning Point. Not everyone has the same tolerance for doing work during non-work hours. Taking home a near-completed project on Friday so you don’t have to worry about it over the weekend may leave you feeling better off. Maybe you don’t mind responding to a few emails in the morning before work, but you can’t stand answering them over the weekend. Pay attention to the ‘turning point’ when taking work home becomes draining rather than freeing. Leavism behaviors become a problem when your ideal boundary between work and home begins to break down.
  • Set Your Own Boundaries. Take initiative to set up work boundaries. Set up your email so it sends an ‘Out of Office’ notice outside of typical work hours, for example. Or, develop rules for yourself about taking work home (such as limiting yourself to taking home only one additional hour of work per week). 
  • Actually Take Time Off. If you are allowed two weeks of paid vacation time annually, try to take off two weeks annually. Taking off less time than you are given so you can be a ‘more productive employee’ will backfire if you end up burned out. 

If you are a leader in your organization, following this advice will have an additional positive impact through your modeling of these behaviors. If people in your company see you taking these steps, they will be more likely to do the same and, overall, will feel less pressured to engage in leavism. 

Do you need an outside perspective? 

Ensuring your organizational culture promotes healthy behaviors for your workforce is paramount in supporting an engaged, happy workforce. If you feel you would benefit from an outside perspective, we’d love to help. Our organizational effectiveness consulting company helps clients walk through complex business issues every day. We will suggest proven tools and resources to help identify and solve your most difficult organizational and leadership challenges so you, your teams, and your organization can thrive. Please contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

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