The University of Manchester

‘Sticking around’ and ‘overworking’ persist despite employers’ increased flexibility – discover ways to find greater joy in your job

by Cary Cooper and Ian Hesketh

In February 2020, before most of us had much knowledge of COVID, we penned an article for The Conversation discussing the concept of “leaveism” and its effects on flexible working. Little did we know that just a month later, the world would be facing a pandemic that would result in the largest involuntary experiment in remote working.

For researchers like us, this presented a unique opportunity to observe how working from home either resolved or exacerbated the workload issues that employees and managers faced in traditional office settings. Suddenly, the kitchen table or spare bedroom became the “workplace,” but without the usual physical presence of supervisors.

As the pandemic allowed people to work remotely and flexibly, it was intriguing to see how the workforce adapted. However, what we discovered was that working from home didn’t actually solve any problems; it simply relocated them to a different setting.

Back in 2013, we coined the term “leaveism” to describe various workplace practices:

  • Using allocated time off, such as annual leave, flexi hours, or rest days, to take time off when one is actually unwell.
  • Using this time off to care for dependents, such as children or elderly relatives, rather than for rest and recuperation.
  • Bringing work home that couldn’t be completed within normal working hours due to excessive workload.
  • Working while on leave or holiday to catch up or keep up.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had a significant impact on these practices. It also affected “presenteeism,” which refers to going into work but not performing at full capacity due to illness.

Establishing a new normal

As we emerge from the dark days of the pandemic, companies are now grappling with the question of what the new “normal” will be for working arrangements. Will it be a hybrid model, remote work, or a return to the office five days a week? The answer will likely vary depending on the organization, its employees, industry, and other individual factors. However, these choices will undoubtedly influence levels of sickness absence, presenteeism, and leaveism in today’s workplaces.

Interestingly, our speculations about bringing work home in February 2020 have become the reality according to our latest research. Taking work home and balancing work with home life have become everyday occurrences for most people.

In our previous book, which was written during the COVID lockdowns, we examined various organizational settings and found that they all came to similar conclusions about remote and flexible working. While there are advantages, such as financial savings and flexibility, there are also downsides, including inadequate workspace and technological limitations.

In our latest study, detailed in our book “Wellbeing at Work,” we explored the impact of lockdowns on workplaces and observed a shift from sickness absenteeism to increased presenteeism and leaveism. Recent research also indicates that despite a rise in homeworking during and after the pandemic, 43% of people still experience presenteeism, and slightly more (47%) engage in leaveism.

Supporting workplace happiness

Managers are now much more aware of the effects of these phenomena in the workplace and can take steps to mitigate their impact on both employees and businesses. Effective leadership is crucial, whether the manager works in the same physical space as their team members or not.

Emotional intelligence plays a vital role in good line management. Understanding how employees feel and think about factors that affect their lives is key. Managers with high emotional intelligence tend to have better relationships with their teams, leading to increased commitment and effort.

Developing these important “soft” skills allows managers to gather relevant information about their team members’ circumstances without intruding on their personal lives. While striking the right balance may be challenging, the rewards are significant for those who can navigate it successfully.

New working patterns

Research shows that effective line management can make the difference between having great days at work and experiencing misery. Leaveism and presenteeism often indicate unhappiness, discomfort, or intentions to quit.

However, employees are currently facing unprecedented challenges during this uncertain period. Organizations are grappling with policies regarding remote and office work, and the ideal combination is yet to be determined, as it depends on individual circumstances.

In this environment, opportunities for constructive employee development may appear scarce. Nevertheless, managers must prioritize the sustainability of their teams and invest in initiatives that contribute to more good days at work for everyone.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, The University of Manchester, and Ian Hesketh, Project Support, National Health & Wellbeing Forum, The University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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