How to avoid falling into the trap of presenteeism and  leavism at work

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How to avoid falling into the trap of presenteeism and  leavism at work

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is where you go to work when you are not well.

A recent report by Deloittes1 shows that presenteeism among people suffering from mental health difficulties cost the UK economy £26.6 – £29.3 billion a year. This is far more than staff turnover and sickness absence, and has increased 16% over the last three years2.

What is leavism?

Leavism is where you consistently work extra hours in your own time. It covers working over your lunch break, in the evenings, at weekends and when you are supposed to be on annual leave. Basically, working when you should be off.

Both presenteeism and leavism are bad for business. More importantly, they are bad for your mental health.

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Impact of presenteeism and how to tackle it

Going to work when you are not well enough means:

  • You will be less effective and productive
  • You are more likely to make mistakes
  • There is more of a risk of conflict with other staff members
  • You are more likely to become even more unwell and end up taking longer to get better
  • Your home life may be affected
Some reasons for presenteeism
  • Company culture – not taking time off is seen as a badge of honour

  • Company sickness absence policies

  • Afraid of stigma or being judged if you’re unwell due to mental health difficulties

  • You don’t know how to have the conversation with your manager

  • You don’t recognise that you are unwell – you think you can just power on through

  • Perfectionism and the pressure you put on yourself

  • Family culture and messages around work and illness

  • Fear of taking time off and letting work build up, adding even more stress

  • Economic reasons – if you are freelance, self-employed or have a zero hours contract and only get paid when you work
Taking steps to deal with presenteeism
  1. Think about what’s driving you to work when you are not well. You might want to do a mind map looking at all the external, internal and practical forces.

  2. Recognise that all the evidence shows that it is not sensible to work when you are physically or mentally unwell. Nobody appreciates the colleague who comes to work with a streaming cold and risks giving it to everybody else.

  3. Think about your mental health in the same way as your physical health. Because of stigma and attitudes to mental health, it might be hard to tell your manager that you need a few days off to look after your mental wellbeing. Would you feel the same if it was a cold or tummy bug?

  4. Remember that it is better to take a few days off when you start to feel unwell rather than risk things escalating. Unfortunately, it is often the case that people will push themselves until there is a crisis.

  5. If the cause of your stress or mental health difficulty is work-related, address this with your manager.

  6. Remember, the more you talk about mental health, the more people will understand it.
Impact of leavism and tools to tackle it

Continuing to work when you should be taking a break means you are not getting the break from work that is essential to our health and effectiveness at work.

Take regular breaks (during the day, in the evening, at weekends and annual leave). This is essential for maintaining your mental wellbeing. It will also make you work more effectively3. Working flat out when you are tired is counter-productive. Breaks are not a luxury.

Make sure you keep proper boundaries between your work and home life so you can switch off during non-working hours and when you are on annual leave.

Notice when you start neglecting to do this and take steps to address it. Feeling you are too busy to take a break is probably a sure sign that you need one.

If presenteeism and leavism are part of the culture, work with others to change it. They are not helpful for you or anyone else and paradoxically end up costing more than taking time off work when you are unwell or tired4.


  1. Mental Health and employees: Refreshing the case for investment Deloitte 2020
  2. Thriving at Work: The Independent Review of Mental Health and Employers Oct 2017



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