Human Resources

How (and why) to end bias against extended leave from work

Lydia Watson

Taken time off recently? Even before jetsetting holidays were put on pause, a lot of us chose not to take all of our annual leave – as many as one third of British workers, according to one study.

With 16% feeling guilty about taking the days they’re already entitled to, where does that leave those who are absent for longer periods – whether it’s down to parental leave, illness, or other personal reasons? There’s a stigma about time off that needs to be challenged, for the good of your entire organisation.

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3 reasons for long-term absences & biases against them

1. Maternity and paternity leave

Parental leave is an obvious example – and one that people are probably the least sympathetic towards. Besides the troubling statistics about redundancy and maternity leave, there are numerous stories of new parents facing resentment for disrupting the flow, with colleagues disgruntled about having to “shoulder a heavier workload”.

This makes the return to work even harder. Studies show there’s not enough support around coming back to work, and the line manager attitudes are key. That resentment could also carry across towards requests for flexible or part-time hours from someone going back to work after maternity leave or other parental leave.

Due to his, the disadvantages of paternity leave can feel very real. 51% still think women should do the majority of childcare, which may compound frustrations around male colleagues being out of office. With many agreeing that higher uptake of paternity leave is key for achieving gender equality, it’s important to end the stigma for anyone wanting to apply for family leave.

2. Long-term sickness absence

For those signed off for ill health – whether mental or physical – they may not anticipate seeing resentment from their colleagues. But it happens: from colleagues annoyed about picking up the slack, to managers feeling pressured, it’s not unusual for empathy to have a time limit. Beyond the basics of avoiding discrimination, changing attitudes is a difficult but worthy goal.

Studies have seen that employees who anticipate returning to a high workload are off sick for longer – but also that their workload feels higher after less time off, possibly due to their tasks being redistributed. This means a flexible approach is needed.

3. Compassionate leave

Supporting a grieving employee will never be easy. But it’s still alarming that 32% of workers have complained about a lack of employer support, after being bereaved. For many, the problem is an inadequate amount of leave allowed for these situations – especially when the person lost isn’t considered an immediate family member.

Aside from the number of days allowed off, employees also struggle with workplace attitudes – not around resentment, but awkwardness. A lack of guidance around what support is needed, whether verbal or in allowing for a staggered return to work, can have a damaging effect.

As 56% of people would consider quitting if they weren’t shown empathy over a loss, this just isn’t good enough.

Whether long-term sick leave or parental leave, flexibility pays off

To stop colleagues feeling like parents and carers get “special treatment”, to avoid piling pressure on those already dealing with illness or loss, and to create a generally more harmonious work environment, a flexible approach is key.

Unlimited paid leave sounds like a frightening prospect (though people don’t even take the time they’re already allowed), but redefining and loosening the parameters could have a powerful impact.

Introduce life leave, allow additional ‘mental health days’ – whatever you do, what’s key is taking a flexible approach that says taking time off is ok. Because the business benefits are real:

  1. Less presenteeism: Working when you’re unwell makes you profoundly less productive, which makes presenteeism a big issue for employers – not to mention the potential for infection, of both physical illnesses and disengagement and “loss of morale”. If employees don’t feel they’d be judged for taking extended time off, whether that’s for sickness or parental leave, you’ll get them back ready to perform – better than half-hearted work and a detrimental impact on the team in the meantime.
  2. Lower turnover: the average cost of turnover per employee is over £30,000. That means keeping attrition low is a financial and cultural imperative. If employees have their wellbeing impacted by resentment from colleagues, or returning to work too early, then they’ll be more likely to leave. And not only is that costly, it only makes the problem of a heavier workload worse for those that remain.
  3. Stronger culture: as always, actions speak louder than words. If you offer a flexible, person-first approach to extended leave, then your employees will recognise that they’re part of a values-first organisation. If employees are all offered the empathy and flexibility they need, whatever happens in their life, you’ll create a stronger culture and sense of togetherness.

Want to learn about the attitudes your employees have towards time off, or how supported they feel by their managers? All you have to do is ask – and we can help with that:

It’s time to start the conversation

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