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Can you force staff to take a holiday… and should you?

12/08/21 Peter Livingstone Director of Contracts & Interim

With Britain officially out of lockdown, and travel restrictions gradually lifting, the prospect of a mass holiday exodus is looking very likely.

It won’t have escaped your notice that Coronavirus has had an enormous impact on all aspects of life. One of these is the effect that travel restrictions have had on holiday plans. Naturally, if we are not allowed to go anywhere, plans to travel abroad or even go away in the UK have often been cancelled or at best postponed. 

It is easy to ignore the issue of untaken holiday as an employer as it alleviates the short-term operational issue of ensuring cover during COVID absence.

But this is often only a short-term view as the long-term implications are serious to employee morale, wellbeing, and potential burnout. Despite evidence that time off can help employees avoid burnout and perform at their highest levels, most employees have not been taking enough of it. It may be time for businesses to resolve a disconnect between their time-off policies and the culture around using it.

But individual burnout is not the only risk being faced by businesses; the rather more mundane risk of holiday scheduling clashes may raise its ugly head as well. Companies could see large proportions of staff all seeking to take time off just as the post-pandemic holiday season kicks into motion. Research has demonstrated the benefits of downtime and rest on overall health and mental capacity, yet employees have been taking limited time off to recover, let alone enough time to extend their capacities in the ways the changing nature of work requires.

Regardless of industry or seniority, many employees resist taking time off, no matter how generous their business’s time-off policies—even if they need it for their continued health and performance.

With many companies last year letting people roll over annual leave, many employees have opted to delay shorter holidays and take a longer one as travel becomes less restricted. All of this may have been compounded by another factor, the government’s COVID “carryover” law change.

Carryover problem

It states holiday can only be carried over when it was ‘not reasonably practical’ for employees to have taken their leave because of coronavirus. What is not ‘reasonably practical’ is the cause of uncertainty and will vary.

In the UK, the minimum statutory requirement for paid holiday each year for a full-time employee is 28 days or 5.6 weeks, including bank holidays. Part-time worker entitlement is calculated on a pro-rata basis. These rules apply to all workers, including agency workers, covered by the Working Time Regulations 1998.

In 2020, the government introduced a law allowing employees and workers to carry over up to 4 weeks' statutory paid holiday into their next 2 holiday leave years. This law applies to any holiday the employee or worker does not take because of COVID-19.

Reasons for this could include:

  • they're self-isolating or too sick to take holiday before the end of their leave year
  • they've had to continue working and could not take paid holiday
  • They may also be able to carry over the holiday if they've been on furlough and cannot reasonably use all their holiday in their holiday year.

This could mean large numbers of key employees may be gone for a month at some unknown point in the next few months, creating a logistical nightmare.

As we all know, many employees are feeling stressed and burned out, but some have been afraid that if they take time off, they will fall behind on work or jeopardise their career. From a welfare perspective, whether an employee is actively working or not, businesses should ensure employees are taking at least their basic minimum holiday entitlement of 20 days per holiday year.

This rising pressure on the workforce to perform mentally taxing work coincides with increased attention on the impact of work on mental health—and vice versa. Too much work without rest can result in burnout. Burnout is not simply stress, but rather a syndrome that can result from chronic and unsuccessfully managed stress. This stress negatively impacts worker health and the capacity for both work output and the ability to learn and develop at the necessary pace.

Staff burnout

Everyone needs to take time out occasionally to recharge - those that do not are at risk of burning themselves out through overwork. Burnout can have measurable effects on the employee, with side effects including exhaustion, mental distance from or negative feelings toward one’s work, and reduced work productivity. This presents more serious problems for the business as their productivity inevitably falls and they may even end up requiring extended time off work to recover.

More potential sick leave

If employees do not take breaks, especially if the role can be particularly stressful, they could end up becoming ill. Stress related illness can be long term too, so the short-term gain is more than cancelled out by the long-term downside.

Increase in staff turnover

There are of course a multitude of reasons why a member of employees might choose to leave,
but HR and departmental managers need to be aware if the company culture is demanding too much from the employees.

Regular holidays

Regular holidays can be more important than exercise or a healthy diet according to findings from the University of Helsinki. A 40-year project tracked 1,200 middle-aged male executives and found those who took less than 21 days holiday a year had a higher risk of early death.

So, to resolve these potential consequences of employees not taking the required leave managers should actively encourage the opportunity to switch off to avoid burnout or other physical or mental health conditions. A failure to manage such health and safety issues effectively could result in personal injury or negligence claims, grievances, resignations and constructive or unfair dismissal challenges.

But are some directors and managers in denial about how badly they need a vacation? Of course, but the main issue is often a lack of leadership. If employees who have worked through a busy work-from-home schedule or uncertain financial times at a business do not feel that they can take off without causing problems, they will not.

Of course, that's easy to say – but the reality is a lot of managers are burned out too. So, what's the best way to balance everyone's needs – and is it okay to be more direct with employees about taking their annual leave?

While some companies favour nothing more than strong encouragement, others say it's fine to mandate taking leave on specific dates. Employment law does allow this, if you give a notice period of at least twice the length of the leave.

Fears about being seen as unproductive, burnout, and holiday pileup are very interconnected problems. Many employers have no idea how serious the issue is because it has built up slowly, and because many employees have been working from home, they may be missing behaviour and mood changes that would be obvious in an office.

Managers need to lead by example, if you are scheduling constant meetings and not using your own holiday leave, it will make everyone feel they have to keep up that pace. Businesses can ensure they are not left short of staff just when they need them, and that employees get the break they need, by taking a positive and proactive approach to holidays. They must decide what is right for their situation and be consistent and fair in how they apply policies and rules.

Being too prescriptive about taking leave may just add to employees’ stress – it depends on company culture – but keep up strong messaging about the importance of health and wellness and remind people about their unused holiday.

To avoid resentment between employees using their 'rollover' time and those abandoned in the wave of holiday absences, asking employees to take a certain amount of leave by a certain date, or a system where a certain number of holiday 'slots' are available at any given time, may be unavoidable. Companies need a clear and actionable strategy to make sure everyone gets a much needed and deserved break without overloading any one employee or department.

However, as a holiday is generally seen by employees as a key benefit, employers potentially forcing employees to take holiday risk souring relations with their staff.

Practically it is a good idea to consider these measures:

  • Highlight that working for too long without a break can impact productivity and creativity
  • Talk about any plans to use or cancel holiday as soon as possible
  • Discuss why holidays might need to be taken or cancelled and how taking large blocks of leave can interrupt workflows
  • Listen to any concerns, either from employee or the employer
  • Welcome and suggest ideas for other options
  • Encourage and empower employees to take time off through behavioural nudges
  • Align policy with culture to ensure everyone feels they have “permission” to take time off
  • Maintain a regular campaign around time off and monitor holiday useage
  • Consider everyone's physical and mental wellbeing
  • Be aware that it is a difficult time for both employers and employees
  • Avoid working excessive hours, emailing employees outside of working hours or checking in with work when on holiday
  • Do not let workload overflow
  • Take advantage of any flexible working opportunities
  • Lead by example to promote healthy working habits
  • Be happy when employees book time off
  • Implement ‘Rollover’ limits

Redline Group has enabled high-technology companies to build world-class teams through knowledge-led recruitment. As industry experts, with a knowledge-led approach across Permanent, Contract & Interim and Executive Search, we have helped thousands of technology, electronics and engineering companies identify, attract, select and secure professional and qualified candidates for over 35 years.

For more information regarding how we can help your business grow, contact Redline Group on 01582 450054 or email