Annual leave is a precious commodity that should be treasured and enjoyed on a regular basis to enable a much needed recharge and detox. Even though we are well post the pandemic, employers are still struggling to balance their annual leave liabilities as workers are reluctant to book annual leave and escape the pressures of work.

Irrespective of whether it is dipping your toes in a sandy white beach or taking the family on a camping adventure, there are many reasons that pressing pause on your work life is good for the soul. Given that there are no longer heavy restrictions and travel specials are once again becoming the norm, organisations should be seeing employees overloading the HR system with endless requests, but this is not the case.

Some employees have had to learn the hard way about not having a ‘rainy day nest egg’ and others still have a hangover from a COVID-19 redundancy; and have since pivoted to a completely different industry. This has contributed to a mentality that annual leave is something that should be stored and not taken.

The impacts of not taking leave

Achieving a balance between work and home life is critical to an employee’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. It generates an opportunity to connect with family and friends, immerse yourself in a hobby or even a new culture. When employees put off annual leave, there are many ramifications to their ability to be their best self at work and it can also harm the business.

Sometimes employees that work in a small business or an environment where they are ‘the only one with a specific skill’ feel that it is selfish or showing a poor work ethic to take time off. The truth is that the best thing loyal and committed employees can do is to take their leave regularly to be able to perform well, support succession planning and keep annual leave liabilities low.

Taking regular annual leave has many benefits. Some of these include:

  • A reduction in stress, anxiety and depression
  • Better workplace relationships as employees can take a breath from frustrations
  • Renewed focus in work tasks, goals and strategy
  • Boosted morale and engagement when employees are rested and refreshed
  • Decreased unplanned absences as employees have the time to attend to personal issues
  • Increased productivity as employees have the energy levels and passion to meet and exceed targets
  • Increased retention as employees are well-rested and more motivated

In addition to the countless employee benefits, employers who have active strategies to manage annual leave balances enjoy the following:

  • Reduced leave liability
  • Leaders who are refreshed and leading by example
  • A strong succession planning policy
  • Increased innovation, collaboration and problem solving
  • A reduction of ‘bottle necking’ in key positions

Can employers direct employees to take annual leave?

The National Employment Standards (contained within the Fair Work Act 2009) allow modern awards and enterprise agreements to include terms permitting employers to direct employees to take annual leave in certain circumstances. Awards and agreements commonly allow directions to take annual leave where an employer is undertaking an annual shut down or where an employee has accrued ‘excessive’ annual leave (usually defined as greater than 8 weeks’ leave).

The particular terms of awards and agreements can vary, Employers are encouraged to seek advice from Ai Group prior to forcing workers to take leave to ensure that they are compliant with workplace agreements and relevant legislation.

For further assistance see:

Creating a culture of balance

There is no question that employees value the concept of annual leave, but the thought of returning to an overflowing inbox, disgruntled customers and a backlog in production is anything but appealing. If you have ever been in this position, you would be forgiven for dragging your feet in booking another holiday to avoid the ‘punishment of the work pile up’ on your return.

If employers are serious about reducing leave liability and more importantly, creating a culture of balance where workers can operate with a fresh mindset to avoid mistakes or accidents; then it is time to consider if the work environment is conducive to taking leave. Ask yourself:

  • Do the senior leaders take their annual leave and share snippets of their holiday?
  • Are you guilty of regularly contacting employees outside of hours?
  • Is there a succession plan in place to cover the employee’s workload while they are on leave?
  • Do you have an appropriate leave policy that outlines expectations and allowances?
  • Are you actively aware of which employees have not had a recent break?
  • Are employees encouraged to share their holiday snaps and stories on their return or is it straight back to business?
  • Do you have appropriate coverage to enable employees to take time off?

5 tips to encourage your employees to take leave

1. Encourage ‘no reason’ leave

You don’t need to have a trip to Italy to justify taking annual leave. Create a team culture where employees are encouraged to share their plans and all reasons are equally supported. A week to clean out the garage may not be your idea of a good time, but if it is what the employee wants to do; get behind it!

2. Role model disconnecting

It is disingenuous for leaders to promote the value of annual leave, but fail to take it themselves. When workers receive late night emails and see their leader working weekends, it sends a message that success is around presenteeism and ‘putting in the hours’. It is critical that every level in the business has appropriate boundaries to enable wellbeing and balance.

3. Manage workloads and coverage

No employee should return from leave and be expected to catch up on the work that they missed while away. This will quickly overturn any benefit from the break and leave a bad taste in the employee’s mouth. Show employees that time off does not translate to a workload punishment by implementing a coverage strategy that works.

4. Check in before they check out

When was the last time that you asked your team member about their next holiday plan? Check in with employees about their plans to disconnect and recharge and take the time listen to their concerns. It may be that they are trying to stock pile for a month’s adventure, but it is more likely they are concerned about their workload. Work together to devise a plan that provides both coverage and peace of mind.

5. Provide a buffer on return from leave

Nothing kills the holiday vibe quicker than returning to an overflowing inbox or back to back meetings. Create a ‘buffer policy’ where leaders allocate time when the employee returns to simply catch up on key business updates and get on top of their admin. During this time, there are no meetings, targets or customers; purely time to feel confident to return back to full duties. This shows respect to the leave period and prevents stress levels returning on day one.

Have an appropriate leave policy

Most employers capture their managing leave strategies, preferences and requirements in their leave policy. This is particularly important for organisations that may have a shutdown period such as over the Christmas break.

It is recommended that the policy sets out:

  • Entitlements to annual leave
  • The procedure for applying for leave
  • Circumstances when requests for leave may be refused
  • Expectations about regular taking of leave and strategies to encourage this
  • Circumstances when employees can be directed to take leave
  • Details of likely close downs during the year
  • How employees are paid while on leave
  • Whether annual leave loading is paid to employees, and if so the purpose of annual leave loading (e.g. to compensate for the employee’s loss of the opportunity to work overtime while on annual leave).

A Sample Leave Policy can be found here

Don’t sit back and watch the accruals build

Many leaders avoid the annual leave question, preferring to allow the employee to self-direct or ‘take when they are ready’. While this strategy may work for some, in the most part it will end in unmanageable leave accruals and overworked employees.

Authentic, emotionally intelligent leadership is about starting the leave conversations early and celebrating requests as a positive and not a work problem to solve. Regular conversations about workload and challenges is a good place to start as it may just uncover the real reason you are not seeing any requests pass your desk.

Further information 

Employers are encouraged to revise their approach to leave to ensure that it best meets the needs of the business and the employee group. Care should be taken to ensure that key changes in the access to and taking of leave is conducive to employee wellbeing and compliant with relevant industrial agreements.

Ai Group has experienced HR consultants who can partner with your business to devise workplace strategies designed to increase engagement and operational efficiency. For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

Related HR Resource Centre content to assist Members of Ai Group with understanding and manaing annual leave include:

Managing Leave Handbook

Our Managing Leave Handbook provides helpful and practical information on how to manage all the different forms of leave in the workplace and explains the interaction of the NES with modern awards, enterprise agreements, contracts and any relevant state legislation. 

The different types of leave that are covered in this publication include:

  • Annual leave;
  • Personal/carer's leave;
  • Compassionate leave;
  • Parental leave ,including the government Paid Parental Leave Scheme;
  • Community service leave, including jury service leave;
  • Public holidays; and
  • Long Service Leave.

To find out more about this valued Handbook please vist here

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.