Leavism is the work trend you need to leave behind in the new year – here's why

Have you ever been tempted to book time off just to catch up on work admin? Or even gone ahead and done just that? This is leavism, and it’s the toxic trend you need to ditch, sharpish. 

Just as you’re starting to dig into that meaty project you’ve been putting off, your Slack pings with a bunch of ‘urgent!! high priority!!!’ tasks from your boss. Your email inbox is a sea of unanswered messages and you just can’t get your head above water. You postpone that catch-up with your colleague for the fourth time running – there’s too much work, and every new day adds more to your to-do list. 

What do you do? Keep trucking along until the inevitable burnout? Try desperately to set some much-needed boundaries? Do you consider booking off a day just to wade your way through all the existing stuff you need to do, free of the extra tasks and distractions that being officially available would bring?

The latter option is what’s known as leavism: the act of booking time off work, but not using it to rest; instead, you spend the time catching up on a backlog without the usual interruptions from bosses and colleagues. This can be in the form of annual leave, but also extends to using weekends, evenings and even mornings before your work day starts just to feel like you’re on top of things.

As you might expect, this is not an ideal setup. But why does leavism happen? Why is it so bad for us? And how can we break the habit? Let’s dive in. 

Why does leavism happen?

Simple answer: too much work, not enough time in which to do it. 

The more complex answer lies in poor organisation, an unhealthy working culture and the tricky tribulations of trying to stay focused and do ‘deep work’. Basically, too many of us are working in setups that have a ridiculous number of hurdles to jump through before we can actually, well, work

“Many organisations are structurally inefficient with time wasted in meetings – whether online or in person – and the bureaucracy of complicated procedures. And add to this the human challenges of procrastination,” explains Amrit Sandhar, founder of The Engagement Coach. “It seems inevitable, then, that many employees take work home, and for those working remotely, it can be harder to have boundaries of when work stops, impacting personal time. 

“For many employees, the last thing they want to be doing is working in their personal time, but they have to often weigh up the balance of not working at home and facing huge pressures and stress during working hours, which for many can be unsustainable, or trying to enjoy their personal time, knowing what awaits them the next day.”

Soma Ghosh, a career happiness mentor, notes that the rise of working from home and all the technology that comes along with it can add not only to the overwhelming distraction of our day-to-day work, leaving us feeling like leavism is our only way to get stuff done, but also to the blurring of work and home boundaries, making it feel perfectly normal to do work when you’re not in a traditional workspace. 

Sandhar adds that with increasing inflation and the cost of living crisis, it’s less likely we’ll be booking in big holidays abroad – creating the perfect breeding ground for leavism to flourish. 

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Why leavism is so bad for our mental health

Leavism is a speedy path to burnout. Once you’ve reached the stage that you’re considering booking annual leave just to get work done, you’re likely already feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Then when you actually engage in this work trend, you deny yourself the essential need to rest. 

“Your sleep, diet and general wellbeing may be put on the backburner,” notes Ghosh, “because the need to make up for work becomes more important than your health.”

Cara de Lange, burnout prevention expert and founder of Softer Success, points out: “Our brains can’t differentiate between admin tasks and working,” so even when you feel like you haven’t got anything ‘proper’ done all day, your mind will still be tired. You need rest in the form of your evenings, your weekends, your time off from work – if you’re filling that time with work of any sort, the mental load can have seriously damaging effects. 

“Organisations that work in an ‘always-on’ culture can cause the burnout of their employees, who are mentally and physically exhausted from working long hours and trying to manage huge pressures,” Sandhar says. “[Denying] our minds and bodies the ability to detach from work can go on to impact our resilience, making it harder to deal with the stresses and strains life can throw at us.

“Working in this way can also reduce the passion we have for work. What may have started off as a great job, may now feel like a burden, leading to disengagement.”

Your body and mind need time to rest

How to break the leavism habit

Once you’ve engaged in leavism, it’s tempting to do it again. After all, it seems like a way to finally get through all the stuff that needs doing… until you end up mentally and emotionally wrecked from overwork. 

So, how do you break the habit? 

De Lange recommends a cold turkey approach, by which we mean booking a proper, getting-away-from-it-all holiday. “Book some actual holiday and time off, and be clear with your manager with what can realistically be done before you go and what needs to be delegated,” she suggests. “Take some time out to do something you enjoy and that calms you. 

“It doesn’t need to be going abroad; it can be walking, visiting somewhere new in your area, taking part in your favourite hobbies and activities or seeing family and friends. Turn your work phone off and do not check your emails. Giving your brain a break works wonders.”

If you know that you’ll be itching to work when you’re supposed to be off, block your path. Delete Slack from your phone and log out of your email the moment your annual leave starts. Set an out of office that clearly states that you’re out of the office and won’t be doing any work, and include the name of a person people can contact in case of something urgent (because it absolutely should not be you). 

Next, it’s about changing your working day so you don’t feel the need to engage in leavism. 

How to deal with work overwhelm

Leavism doesn’t happen because you really want to be giving up your free time; it happens because it feels like the only way you can be productive. So how do we change that?

“Firstly, make sure you talk to your manager about feeling overwhelmed and ask for support with this,” says Ghosh. “If you are ignored and not taken seriously, bring up how it’s affecting your health. Say that you enjoy your work, you just want better working practices. Also, talk to your HR team for further support and see if you can have an occupational health assessment too. The key is to ask for support and not be embarrassed about this.

“If your organisation doesn’t value your honesty then you may be dealing with a work environment that’s toxic. This is where you need to consider either getting a new job or leaving your company.

“If you are looking for an alternative situation to leavism, see how your work can be shared with your team or even consider talking to your boss about meetings you don’t need to attend so you can do your work instead.”

Saying no is key, too. It’s vital that you truly value your work and rest time, meaning you feel empowered to decide that something (a pointless meeting or a task that isn’t a core part of your job) isn’t worth your energy. 

“Stop saying yes to impress at work,” Ghosh recommends. “Evaluate if this task is really something you can do, and think about how it’s taking time out of your day. If you have an important project to finish, prioritise that first before you commit to something else.”

Also essential is feeling like you’re in control of your workload and priorities. Sandhar suggests: “Breaking tasks down into priority order and scheduling when they will be complete can be a great way to compartmentalise the challenges without feeling overwhelmed. Having a list of tasks (no more than five or six, depending upon the intensity of the work) and crossing them off as you complete them can provide a sense of progress, keeping us motivated and energised.” 

Finally, manage your time so you’re working smarter, not harder. “In the same way we guide children to take breaks when studying, the same is true for adults,” Sandhar says. “We need regular breaks, so build these in. Breaking work down into 45-minute chunks can keep us focused and energised.

“Something else to be mindful of is the concept of chronobiology and our circadian rhythms. Typically, many people experience peak levels of alertness during late morning (between 10am and 12pm) and again in the late afternoon. These could be good times to plan in deep work, while early afternoon could focus on reducing admin noise, such as emails that still need responding to throughout the day.”

Images: Getty

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