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Absence anxiety: Why do we feel uneasy taking time off work?

11 December 2023 7 min read

woman checking phone - work absence anxiety

You’ve booked some time off work, or you’ve had to call in sick for a few days. Have you ever had that feeling that you’re missing out, or that something is going to go horribly wrong in your absence from work? That’s absence anxiety, and it’s a common phenomenon for people who find ‘switching off’ from work challenging.

We recently conducted a survey to find out more about how employees feel when it comes to taking time off work. The results were unsettling, with 33% of respondents admitting they worried about their workload during busy periods when taking annual leave.

Half of respondents (50%) admitted to ‘sometimes’ checking their work emails while on leave, and 27% said they look at them ‘often’.

A recent study by AXA UK and the Centre for Business and Economic Research (Cebr) also found that 28% of those surveyed said they find it difficult to separate work life from non-work like and have poorer mental health as a result.

What is absence anxiety?

Absence anxiety is the feeling of unease you get when you’re away from work. It happens to a lot of us, but may present itself slightly differently for different people.

For example, you may:

  • feel stressed about tasks that you weren’t able to complete before your absence from work
  • worry about all possible scenarios that could occur while you’re absent, and wonder if your colleagues will be able to cope without you
  • be curious to know what has been happening in your absence
  • be worried about returning to work and facing a workload that has grown considerably while you’ve been away
  • feel guilty about being off, as though you have inconvenienced your workplace or left your colleagues in the lurch

Have you ever experienced absence anxiety?

Feeling anxious because of your absence from work can happen to anyone, and regularly does, without us even realising it.

A feeling of anxiety and stress can be a common occurrence amongst people managers or those in senior positions in particular, because they feel the extra responsibility of having the workloads and wellbeing of their teams often resting on their shoulders.

Usually, absence anxiety is not detrimental, but it can have a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing.

Some of the signs that you’re struggling with absence anxiety might include:

  • checking your emails first thing in the morning, last thing at night, or periodically throughout the day when you’re off work
  • saying to colleagues “call me if you need anything” before going on holiday
  • checking in with your team during your absence to see how things are
  • doing work while you are on annual leave or while you are unwell
  • spending too much time thinking about work during your free time
  • feeling worried about returning to work because you have a fear of catching up, or that something that has gone wrong in your absence
Find out more about reducing burnout in the workplace

Find out more about reducing burnout in the workplace

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What causes absence anxiety?

The causes of absence anxiety very much depend on the individual – but the bottom line is that someone is unable to fully ‘switch off’ from work to rest, recover from illness, or enjoy some much-needed time spent on family, social or personal commitments.

For people managers, the burden of responsibility can weigh heavy. Wondering how your team are getting on without you, or what might happen should a crisis occur, are signs that you’re not prioritising your own wellbeing or quality time away from work.

Absence anxiety can also be a sign that someone cares greatly about their work. They may truly enjoy their job or they are constantly striving for better results, and so a break from work can feel counterproductive. This feeling of ambition and drive, while it shows that someone is a great asset to the company, can be harmful in the long term. It may in fact cause an individual to take less time off work than they really need, leading to presenteeism and burnout.

Is workplace culture fueling absence anxiety?

One of the factors that might be driving absence anxiety is an organisation’s culture surrounding absence, leave and wellbeing.

An organisation that doesn’t prioritise the need for its employees to take time off regularly and when they need it, can expect to see a growing risk of presenteeism and eventually burnout. Read more about what presenteeism is, and how organisations can combat it.

If, for example, employees are praised for turning up to work early and staying late, or coming into work despite feeling a little under the weather, then the emphasis is placed on always being present and working hard no matter what.

This isn’t a sustainable practice – people do get sick, suffer from poor mental health, and need a well-earned holiday from time to time.

Having time to rest and feeling encouraged and supported to do so by their manager, helps to nurture a positive and healthy boundary, where taking time off is seen as a positive rather than something that is subject to criticism or judgement.

Tips to prevent absence anxiety

For individuals, preventing absence anxiety starts with setting clear boundaries between work and personal life. That means leaving work at work, whether you are on annual leave or absent due to sickness. Not looking at emails, completing tasks or checking in with colleagues while you are off work are all great places to start.

For people managers and HR, accurately recording and monitoring absence and leave data is an important step in understanding how they are impacting your employees and the organisation as a whole. If you notice an individual has taken multiple sickness absences in a short space of time, it is worth checking in with that employee and having a conversation. Likewise, if someone hasn’t used any holiday allowance for several weeks or even months, it is important for their line manager to step in an encourage them to do so.

Performing return-to-work check-ins with employees who have been off sick, to see how they are doing and what support they might require to help them get back into their workload, will help them to feel supported.

Reviewing how much support people managers are able to give to their teams – whether it’s through one-to-one check-ins, performance reviews or engagement surveys, will also help to encourage a more positive workplace culture that doesn’t dismiss the need to take time off work when it’s needed – helping to alleviate the feeling of absence anxiety for many.

Unlock absence and leave data with edays

Recording sickness absence and leave is the number one way to gain complete visibility of your workforce. Without it, you don’t know who might be struggling and who might be at risk of burnout.

In one configurable system, you can log all instances of sickness absence, as well as the reason for the absence, to get a clear picture of how your employees are doing. Staff holiday bookings are also made simple and you can have sight of everyone’s leave allowance to see how much, or how little, has been used.

Unlock and utilise all of your absence and leave data to really see how it is impacting your organisation – on a company-wide, department, team or individual level.

To find out more and to book a free personalised demo, click here. 

Georgina at edays
December 11, 2023

Georgina Mackintosh is an accomplished copywriter and marketing professional with a background that spans several industries. Her writing focuses on HR topics such as employee wellbeing, engagement and experience - as well as absence management best practice, how-to guides and news from the HR sector.