Under UK law, employees who work five days a week are entitled to at least 28 days’ paid leave each year, usually including bank holidays.

Yet many staff don’t take anywhere near their full allowance. RotaCloud data shows that the average UK worker had 14 days of annual leave left to take in 2020. Of course, 2020 wasn’t the most normal year for taking holiday, given that there wasn’t much we could do with our time off, but RotaCloud data covering pre-pandemic years still showed an average of 7 days of leave left untaken.

Why aren’t staff taking annual leave?

Usually, it’s for one of these reasons:

  • Workload fears. Staff have too much work to do — they’ll just be left with a bigger workload when they return.
  • Pressure from colleagues and managers. They directly or indirectly mention how disruptive it would be for someone to take time off.
  • Company culture rewards employees for not taking holiday. Staff are viewed more positively if they’re present, and may benefit because of it.
  • They plan to roll over leave to next year. They might be saving leave because they’d rather spend it next year.

Why it’s in your interest for staff to take leave

Even though staff taking holiday can be disruptive in the short term, encouraging staff to book annual leave actually holds many benefits to employers in the long run:

  • Cut stress & burnout, and improve productivity. You don’t need us to tell you that taking time off should reduce stress. Stressed-out staff aren’t as productive as those who are well-rested — we all need a break once in a while.
  • Reduce sickness. Stressed staff are more likely to suffer from both mental and physical health issues.
  • Reduce staff turnover. If the culture at your company somehow discourages staff from taking annual leave (and taking leave is important to them), they’re more likely to look for another job instead of sticking around hoping the culture changes.
  • Prevent leave ‘congestion’. If staff aren’t encouraged to take leave throughout the year, they’ll end up with too much to take later in the leave year — giving you the impossible task of juggling all those leave requests at once.

How to encourage staff to take more annual leave

The way you need to go about solving this problem will depend on the root causes. If staff aren’t taking holiday because they’ve got too much work to do, and no-one to cover for them, you’ll need to adjust how work is assigned, or simply hire more staff.

But here, we’ll focus on changing the culture around taking annual leave. While this is typically a medium to long term project, you can start making progress straight away.

  1. Encourage managers to book annual leave. Cultural changes take place faster if those at the top show they’re on board.
  2. Openly talk about the benefits of taking holiday in the office or over your work’s messaging platform.
  3. Send out regular reminders to staff of how many days of leave they have left to take in the leave year.
  4. Make it easier to book leave. Use a system that employees can access from home, work, or elsewhere, that automatically notifies managers when a request is made, and employees when a request is approved or denied.
  5. Relax the rules around booking leave — and announce it.  For example, if you asked that all requests be made a month in advance, let staff know you’re cutting it to a single week. See how this affects take up.

Nothing to lose?

Overall, encouraging your staff to take holiday isn't as damaging as it first sounds — in fact, you have very little to lose, and much to gain by doing so.

But it’s important to remember that staff not taking holiday is likely to be a symptom of a wider problem on your team, or in your workplace — such as excessive workloads, presenteeism, or cultural issues. In that sense, noticing that your staff aren’t taking holiday should be treated as a useful alarm that something’s amiss.

Encouraging uptake of annual leave may only be a small measure to combat these problems, but it’s a start — and something that every manager and business owner can do.

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