Four ways to avoid an end-of-year annual leave surge
It’s hard to believe that we’re well over halfway through 2021. Like 2020, it’s been another year of changes and challenges for businesses everywhere. Once again, HR teams have had to adapt, learn and find ways to look after their people.
As we head into the final stretch of the year, a lot of attention is focused on getting back to business normality and finding the right way of working. Do you go fully remote, fully on-site or hybrid? Are your offices COVID secure? How do you hire people in this new age of attraction?
These are all very immediate questions, but it’s worth looking ahead at potential challenges. One which could be on the horizon is a late year spike in annual leave requests.
The world is in a tricky place at the moment - we’re opening up, but there are still some restrictions around travel and danger in planning too far ahead. Many people are putting holiday plans on ice for now, with a view to travelling near the end of the year when things may be easier.
This could cause problems for both employer and employee. You could be in a position where you’re short staffed because several people are off at the same time. You may even find yourself having to decline leave requests, which is never a nice situation.
Just as importantly though, your employees could find themselves going months without a proper break. The risk of burnout - already high since the COVID-19 pandemic began - could be massive.
So what steps can you take to prevent an unhealthy situation for the business and your people? Here’s a few things to consider.
Encourage early usage
Rather than playing the waiting game, be proactive and start encouraging people to take their leave now. Annual leave isn’t just for when you have a holiday - people need a break away from their screen and workload.
Some companies put specific rules in place which mandate holidays - for example a certain percentage of annual leave allowance should be used up by a certain date. You may wish to think about this, but a softer approach often works better. A good idea is to have education sessions with employees on the dangers of burnout.
A couple of years ago, the World Health Organisation actually added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases. A lot of employees probably won’t be aware of this, or fully realise the impact it can have on all aspects of their life. Therefore, educating them can have a positive effect in the long-term as well as the short-term.
Communicate your policy
You probably already have a firm annual leave policy in place - but how well do you communicate it? Take this opportunity to send out a reminder. Use all the channels available to you, both online and offline, to capture everyone’s attention.
Do you have any rules about specific times of the year? For example, some businesses in the hospitality sector have limits on the amount of time people can take off over Christmas. A helpful nudge even at this early stage can prevent issues further down the line.
Many businesses will look to refine their annual leave policies based on the current situation. If you're worried about being left short later in the year, you could consider implementing a first-come, first-served system. This will encourage people to put their requests in early, which can help you get a rough idea of how many people will be off in each of the next four months.
Show wellbeing is a priority
With economic uncertainty rife, people are understandably worried about their futures and the risk of redundancies. Many are reluctant to take annual leave because they fear being seen as ‘unproductive’.
It’s your job to show that employee wellbeing is at the front and centre of your mind. This will help reassure them and show that it’s okay to take time off.
Promote any wellbeing programmes or benefits that you have, with a particular emphasis on physical and mental ones. Things like encouraging a full hour’s lunch break, or offering discounted gym memberships and meditation classes, can make a big difference.
Help people with stress management, whether it’s by signposting them to external resources, or a company Employee Assistance Programme. See how many Mental Health First Aiders you have in the company as well - ideally you should try and get new people trained every year.
Finally, normalise discussions around wellbeing. Employees should know that they can always talk about their worries. Depression rates in the UK have doubled since COVID-19, so it’s never been more important for employers to have an open door policy.
If you’re looking for some more actionable wellbeing tips that your managers can use, check out our recent Return to Work Manager’s Playbook.
Lead by example
One way to stop people storing up annual leave is by leaders role-modelling the right behaviours. This is in terms of their messaging - emphasising the importance of wellbeing and the benefits of taking breaks - as well as their actions.
It’s all well and good telling staff to take regular time off, but people at the top need to set a good example. If employees see their manager and other senior people taking annual leave, they’ll be more comfortable doing it themselves.
Sometimes, HR can find it difficult to get senior leaders on board with this type of thing, but you can present it to them in business terms as well as health terms. We’ve already mentioned the fact that you could be short staffed near the end of the year, but you can also explain how productivity is often lower when employees are overworked or running on empty.
In fact, studies show that presenteeism costs UK firms up to £26 billion a year - so encouraging time away makes good business sense, as well as being the right thing to do.
The key takeaway
HR always has a tricky balancing act, having to manage the needs of the organisation as well as its employees. If you act now, with clarity and care, you can ensure both parties are in a healthy state near the end of the year.
As the old saying goes - prevention is better than a cure.