Leavism: the troubling truth behind why we work on holiday

Overworked employees are using their annual leave to catch up on tasks they should have left behind at the office – and it isn’t just job anxiety and smartphones to blame. André Spicer considers the issue

This is an edited version of an article first published by The Guardian

I can’t wait for my holiday,” a colleague told me. “I’m going to get so much work done!”

At the time, I wasn’t shocked. Many professionals I know use their holidays as an opportunity to work. I have to admit that, when I’m on holiday, I wake up early so I can do some sneaky work before the rest of the family appear and demand I ‘relax’.

Now this trend of working on holidays has been given a name: leavism. Professor Cary Cooper and his colleagues at Manchester University first identified leavism in 2014. They surveyed staff in a large UK police force during prolonged job cuts. They found that more than one third of the officers had taken leave or holiday when they had been sick or injured. Professor Cooper soon realised that using annual leave, instead of sick leave, was part of a wider phenomenon where holidays became a time to work.

A follow-up study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2018 found that 72% of respondents had observed ‘leavism’ and 37% reported people taking annual leave (rather than sick leave) when they were ill. More than 30% of those surveyed reported that people took leave to catch up on work. An even more recent study found that up to half of employees surveyed were taking work home and claiming they were on holiday.

Professor Cooper thinks employees take time off to work because our workplaces have become increasingly competitive, and employees are overburdened; working on holiday helps us keep up. Another reason is technology; the ubiquity of smartphones means work is constantly with us – even when we are hiking in the mountains, a smartphone tethers us to what is happening in the office.

I think there are two other reasons we take holiday to work. Firstly, most modern workplaces have become the last place where you can get work done; there are often so many pointless disruptions and distractions. Going on holiday becomes a desperate means of finding distraction-free time to work.

Secondly, another, overlooked, reason we take holidays to work is this; working is often more comfortable and easier than the rest of our lives. By hiding in our work when on holiday, we are able to ignore personal relationships, family dynamics and our own feelings.

Working on holiday is a defence mechanism. It helps us avoid facing up to the troubling prospect that we might not have a life outside work.

Do you work when you’re on holiday? Let us know what you think via Twitter.

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