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“Leaving town” versus “taking leave”: the case for re-thinking academic leave restrictions
  1. R J Epstein
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor R J Epstein
 Room 404, Professorial Block, Department of Medicine, University of Hong Kong, Queen Mary Hospital, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong; repstein{at}

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Today’s knowledge worker will be judged by achievement rather than attendance.

Academic institutions permit staff to take non-vacation leave—variously categorised as conference leave, study leave, training leave, special leave, etc—with the aim of adding long term value to the institution.1 Logically, such value–adding leave should be considered an intangible asset, rather than a cost, of the institution. Yet most employers continue to offer academic leave as a restricted “perk” or privilege, implying that the institution (a) cannot judge the value of individual leave applications, and (b) tacitly approves staff not working while on leave.

The pressures of globalisation are now highlighting this anomaly. In the past few decades the scope of day to day academic activities has extended to the regional and international sphere; this diffusion of the academic workplace away from its historical lecture theatre roots is part of a broader migration away from institutional imperialism2 and towards outsourcing, offshoring, flexi-time, portfolio careers, and telecommuting.3–5 New communication technologies mean that “out of town” is no longer synonymous with “off duty”—many academics no longer live monkish existences confined to ivory towers, but rather pursue an executive style 24/7 work schedule pursuing opportunities in diverse locations while remaining in contact with the primary workplace through email, internet, and hand phone. An absent medical academic (for example, attending an overseas meeting) can spend a large proportion of each conference day responding to phone inquiries from junior clinical staff, replying to faxed queries about patients, studying emailed data from lab researchers, completing manuscripts, etc. Indeed, as the communications revolution continues to gain speed, one increasingly hears the comment that the most efficient way to get work completed is to go away.

Administrative adaptation to this technology driven change in the workplace has been slow in many institutions,6 reflecting the prioritisation of bureaucratic process over academic productivity first noted by Sonnenberg.7 Academia now finds itself squeezed between this historical drift towards overadministration and the growing pressures towards corporatisation8; at a time when clinical academic careers are becoming less attractive,9 this state of affairs merits concern. Moreover, from the competitive standpoint of the university, the natural tendency of the bureaucracy to control academics by mandating on-site attendance makes about as much sense as restricting the number of grant applications or publications that each faculty member is permitted to produce.

One may well ask: why should the system of leave regulation for academics differ so fundamentally from that of “clock-on, clock-off” occupational categories such as bus drivers and soldiers? Firstly, service work of the latter kind can be characterised as dissipative—when the shift is finished, the work for that period must also be finished—whereas academic work (completing reports, filing assessments, marking theses, preparing talks, revising articles, etc) is cumulative, piling up in the in-tray during staff absences. Secondly, academic productivity often depends upon creativity, a staff resource that is all too often stifled by managerial drives towards tight control10; hence, a restricted leave system may redirect staff ingenuity to maximising bureaucratic “leave niches” of all categories, rather than producing more internationally competitive outputs. At the other extreme, abolition of leave restrictions would not mean that each staff is entitled to unlimited leave; in contrast, it would mean that leave as an automatic entitlement (that is, akin to annual leave) has also been abolished.

We have entered an unfamiliar era in which work productivity is more effectively enhanced by dynamism and mobility than by remaining obediently chained to the office desk. In the worst case scenario, where a staff misuses leave in the long term, the resulting lack of productivity should provide grounds for contract non-renewal—or, in the case of tenured staff, for withdrawal of resources. As today’s knowledge worker will be judged by achievement rather than by attendance, they will be better motivated by incentives for entrepreneurialism than by deterrent regulations and penalties.11

The “hidden curriculum” of medicine has been defined as the less explicit administrative framework—institutional policies, evaluation procedures, resource allocation decisions—of the learning environment.12 A one-size-fits-all mentality is attractive to administrators, but anathema to academics; traditional contracts have emphasised control rather than performance, but globalisation has created a new intensity of competition that is incompatible with the top heavy bureaucratic dominance of yesteryear. The modern tertiary institution now has both the opportunity and obligation to focus its energies on productivity challenges more serious than that of monitoring staff movements. However, this will require the political will to abandon ancient geographical notions of what constitutes “leave” and, instead, to encourage staff to risk and innovate wherever possible.

Today’s knowledge worker will be judged by achievement rather than attendance.


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  • Funding: none.

  • Competing interests: none declared.

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