James LinternCo-founder, RotaCloud
James is co-founder of staff management software provider RotaCloud, an expert on the evolving workplace and an advocate for changing employ James is co-founder of staff management software provider RotaCloud, an expert on the evolving workplace and an advocate for changing employee experience for the better
How many days off have you taken in the last 12 months? Can you count those days on your fingers? Do you even remember the last time you took a proper break? When I started writing this article I double-checked how many days’ holiday I’d taken off in the last year and I was surprised by how low the number was.
I’m sure many of you are in a similar position, and we’re not alone — we’re not even in the minority. Almost 60% of people haven’t taken a single day off yet in 2021.
UK statutory leave is 28 days a year, which is on par with many countries, so in the last year and a half-ish (from 1st Jan 2020 to date early June 2021) theoretically, the average person should’ve taken about 41 days off. Just over two months. Are you anywhere close to that? What about your team?
The data suggest that they won’t be, because people have stopped taking their annual leave entitlements. And this is terrible news.
In the UK, we have a habit of glorifying overwork — and the same goes for many other cultures. We’re proud of pushing ourselves as hard as we can; working long hours, working while we’re sick, and not taking all the time off we need, and are entitled to — all to prove we’re committed to our jobs.
And while, especially if you’re someone who’s in the process of building a business, it can seem that it’s at the very least necessary, and often desirable, to spend all your time working — it’s not good for you. And it’s certainly not good for your employees.
The average Brit used to end the year with about seven days of untaken holiday leave that they’d just forfeit. But in 2020 that number went up to 14. Almost three whole weeks of holiday leave per person was allowed to disappear.
When my team and I found this out in December, we decided to do some more digging. We analyzed data from 100,000 RotaCloud users, across a range of sectors, to find out exactly how the last 12 months had changed annual leave usage, the effect those changes had had on the UK workforce, and the subsequent consequences for businesses (full report here).
Not only is annual leave usage dropping, but when we take leave is changing dramatically too. The typical British employee used to be predictable. We holidayed in summer and around the bank holidays, took the odd Friday off for a long weekend, and had little interest in taking leave in the winter.
However, when lockdown 1 was announced in March last year, we saw more than a 50% drop off in leave taken, almost overnight, and people didn’t start taking holiday again until late July / early August. That’s four months without any leave.
While there was more holiday taken in November and December than we’d usually expect, it wasn’t enough to make up for earlier falls. And it still hasn’t recovered — leave booking is still more than a third lower than it should be.
This is a huge problem for people. With cases of burnout and exhaustion rising, it’s absolutely vital to take regular time off from work, to rest, recharge, and look after yourself. And it’s a problem for employers too.
Things like presenteeism (coming into work while you’re sick when you should’ve stayed at home to rest and get better) and, unbelievably, leavism (using your annual leave to take time off to catch up on work you don’t have time to get done during your workday) are on the rise too. And in teams where these types of behaviors are present, not only does productivity obviously suffer, but instances of illness are often higher, as is staff churn.
As employers, we can help to combat this though, and there are lots of things we can do to help staff stay healthy and encourage them to make the most of their leave. But first, we need to figure out and understand the underlying reasons behind why someone might not be taking their leave:
- They have too much work to do
- There is pressure, either directly or indirectly, from management that makes people uncomfortable about taking time off
- Or your company culture rewards people for being ‘present’
The easiest to fix is workload. If your staff have too much on, you need to redistribute their work or hire more staff. If you can’t do that, you need to take a step back and look at how the business is functioning.
The last two are more difficult. If you’ve built a culture that rewards the grind and it’s gone too far, it can be difficult to wind it back. You obviously still want your staff to work hard, but there’s a big difference between a dedicated, diligent team, and a group of people that feel like they need to be constantly seen to be working. Eventually, it’ll just make them ill.
To start making a cultural change, talk openly about taking leave. Make sure people know the benefits of it (something we champion at RotaCloud), and regularly send out reminders for people to do so.
You can also make it easier for people to book leave by using a system that’s easy for staff to access, wherever they are, and notifies everyone involved when the request has been made and approved. The most important step in making a culture change, however, is to lead from the front.
Encourage senior staff and managers to take holiday, but also make sure that you take holiday too. I’m committed to taking more leave this year, and I’m going to make sure I talk about it.
Running, leading, and building a business is hard, especially now. But making sure that you take breaks is vital, not just for you, but for the team around you too.
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