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If we took a holiday… By Sarah Fletcher

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If you ever suspected Madonna had a soft spot for employee relations, you might be right. The lyrics to her 1980s hit Holiday pose an important question for employers and staff during the summer season – should we take a holiday? As employment law specialists Croner recently warned that the 23 per cent of us that fail to take the annual leave we’re owed could be risking injuries associated with overwork, Sarah Fletcher asked HR Zone members whether swapping a desk for a giant Pina Colada is really a business must.


Given the recent airport chaos following another alleged terrorist plot – piles of stranded luggage, endless queues and security frisking that you may end up describing to a psychologist in a few years time – it wouldn’t be surprising if employees turned down the opportunity for a holiday fraught with problems before the plane has even taken off.

Unfortunately, whilst this airport ordeal is an unusual case, statistics show that it doesn’t take a terrorist threat to make employees opt out of taking holidays. As Croner notes, almost a quarter (23 per cent) of UK employees fail to take their entitled holiday days each year while employees in the UK lag noticeably behind the generous allowances afforded to European colleagues.

UK workers take an average of 28 days holiday per year, a poor record given that Italians manage 42 and the French take 37. So why do British employees feel so attached to their desks and could this cause significant problems for organisations? The health and safety issues associated with overwork mean that choosing the office over a close encounter with a security guard may not be the safe option it seems.

Workforce planning:
A strong argument for encouraging employees to wave the office goodbye once in a while is that organisations may risk claims for stress and injuries sustained at work by continually allowing employees to turn their backs on the holiday they’re owed. However, in certain circumstances it could be disastrous to allow staff to pack their bags.

Operational requirements often require employees to choose work over play, particularly where the work is of a nature that unplanned events require staff to cancel leave at late notice. The airport chaos of recent weeks provides a good example of this. As consultant Mike Morrison points out, the British Aviation Authority (BAA), airlines and the police force rely on their workforce to come together in times of need. Is it realistic to insist they take a holiday when their employer needs them?

“As an employer the easiest way to show you have fulfilled your obligation is to insist people take their annual leave. Twenty days is not much and no one is that indispensable that they can’t be released for four weeks.”

Keith Luxon, HR Director, Three Valleys Water

Productivity lag:
Yet it still remains the case that companies that request staff work overtime or skip holidays could damage employees’ ability to do the job well. As Morrison notes, productivity is a major concern: “The irony is that business needs people to take a break as there is psychological evidence that people perform better after one.”

Training consultant Nik Kellingley agrees, arguing that UK business needs a structural rehaul to fix lagging productivity: “In France employees rarely work more than 35 hours a week, have more holiday than here and are the most productive workers in Europe.

“Overworked and overstressed UK employees lag far behind their French counterparts. Employers are going to have to start preparing their employees for working more effectively rather than relying on a culture of long hours to get things done.

“In Dubai where I’m working at the moment many companies have noticed that employees are more productive in the six months following their one month’s (compulsory) annual leave than at any other time.”

Tribunal fears:
Aside from productivity concerns, employers could be throwing themselves before a tribunal by allowing workers to decline holiday leave. Keith Luxon, HR Director of Three Valleys Water, says forcing staff to take holidays is the safest way of protecting the company against accusations of neglecting health and safety:

“Under the Working Time Directive regulations, employers have an obligation to allow people to take 20 days annual leave but employees are not obliged to actually take it. However, as an employer the easiest way to show you have fulfilled your obligation is to insist people take it. Twenty days is not much and no one is that indispensable that they can’t be released for four weeks.

“If you agree to pay for the Working Time Directive regulations bit of the leave then you are condoning not taking it, which will leave you open to a claim. In addition to [this you are risking] a potential health and safety claim if the employee has an injury at work or [suffers] general “stress” due to working too hard.”

However, Director of Mayo Learning International Andrew Mayo argues there is no real threat of being hit with health and safety legislation by allowing staff to skip holiday leave unless the company actually prevents the employee from taking their entitled time off. Forcing staff to take their allocated holiday leave is not the employer’s responsibility and encourages a workplace “nanny state”, he says.

This is due to “interfering” government and the HR department’s arrogance – a sense that “HR knows best”. Fiona Fritz, HR coordinator of Grampian Country Pork, agrees that this isn’t the place of government or the employer: “The onus is on the employee to take the holiday and we are not obliged to pay should they not.”

Rejecting holidays as a ‘badge of honour?’
Julie Preston, training operations manager at Scottish Prison Service College, says overtime and missed holiday leave is just part and parcel of employment: “Prisons obviously need to be staffed 24 hours a day, every day. It’s challenging work which can be stressful and even dangerous. As with any workplace, resources are always in short supply and there’s pressure to do more with less.

“Many staff therefore work over and above their contracted hours to ensure the safety and security of the establishment and everyone in it. Often leave is carried forward into the next year as “they couldn’t find the time” to use it. This is a reality of working life.”

“Do we in reality encourage this type of behaviour – rewarding and revering people who spend long hours at work and who don’t take leave? Is it in fact tacitly accepted as the measure of an individual’s organisational commitment?”

Julie Preston, training operations manager, Scottish Prison Service College.

“In some areas this has generated a cultural norm of building up time off in lieu (TOIL). Some individuals have accumulated several hundred hours – there is little if any chance of this time being recouped by the individual and there’s competition as to who has accumulated most hours.

“It is worn as a badge of honour. There is a corporate policy about the maximum number of hours that can be built up; however this is not adhered to, operational requirements being used as the rationale.”

The employer’s role:
Preston suggests this tendency to turn down entitled holiday leave is due to a damaging attitude towards the situation: “Do we in reality encourage this type of behaviour – rewarding and revering people who spend long hours at work and who don’t take leave? Is it in fact tacitly accepted as the measure of an individual’s organisational commitment?”

Preston continues: “In the light of increasing litigation around work related stress and the potential financial impact, organisations need to monitor and manage the situation. Employers have a duty of care from a health and safety perspective and should also be looking at the problem from a performance management perspective.”

An American solution?
PricewaterhouseCoopers is addressing the problem of untaken holiday days by closing its US offices for ten days over the Christmas period and for five around the fourth of July. Although the problem in the US is more acute than in the UK – American workers take on average only 16 days holiday per year – UK companies could learn from this global firm.

Organisations should promote a workplace environment which does not frown upon staff who choose to take holidays and does not penalise them financially by offering lucrative payments for working overtime. Nik Kellingley suggests companies should increase holiday pay and reduce overtime payments to encourage employees to take the breaks they are entitled to thus improving productivity rates, cutting health and safety claims and bringing us more in line with other European countries.

One Response

  1. A Stress Therapists’ Perspective
    Thanks for this fascinating article, Sarah.

    As a stress therapist, I work with companies delivering seminars which teach techniques on how to manage work/life balance whilst maintaining the best possible health and thus performing at optimum levels in all areas of life.

    It’s very interesting that we talk in the seminars about taking breaks and the well-documented performance benefits of doing so.

    I take on board the various views expressed in your article and would like to share my own experiences on this.

    First of all, I spent 20 years working in highly pressurised environments and my health suffered as a result. Thankfully I changed my lifestyle before this became more serious.

    Secondly, as I get feedback from the delegates on my courses, peer pressure has so much to do with putting into practice what they learn about taking breaks and other stress-relieving techniques.

    People know they should take breaks and will probably perform better for doing so, however many do not want to be the one that ‘stands out from the crowd’ or ‘takes the lead’ when they see those around them working without breaks.

    This is not just about taking annual holiday, but also about taking frequent breaks during the day, which is also essential to reaching optimum performance and to preventing illness and injury.

    My advice to these clients is that they can take breaks or changes of what activity they are involved in for a few minutes every hour. If they adopt this policy for a month and notice the changes, perhaps others around them will also see the changes and also follow suit. If they have staff working for them, then I advise them that they should take the lead, as they are doing their staff and their company a disservice if they are not working at their best.

    A further point to note is that, whilst it’s great to be dedicated to work, there are implications in and out of work and cancelling holidays too frequently can cause stress which affects every aspect of people’s lives and certainly won’t help performance at work.

    I have experienced first hand the realities of pressurised environments, but the ‘gung ho!’ approach can only work in the short term. Whilst we all need a certain amount of stress to get ourselves going and some people thrive (or believe they do)on high pressure, others who fail to take notice of training and policies on break taking may find themselves suffering severe illnesses such as breakdowns, burnout, heart attacks and high blood pressure.

    How effective is that on the employee or the employer – not to mention their team members when they crash out?

    Employers have a responsibility to make sure their staff are aware of the dangers and employees should be encouraged to follow the advice given, but this has to become part of te culture of an organisation and has to be led from the top.

    Best wishes

    Annie Lawler

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