How to manage employee 'home holidays' so workers still get a proper break

11 August 2020

'Staycations' will be booming this year (at least according to a holiday firm that specialises in UK holidays) and the creation of 'air bridges' to popular European holiday destinations means there is now at least the possibility for many of us of a sunshine break this summer.

But, given there is considerable nervousness for many at the idea of going through an airport and sitting, masked up, in a metal tube for hours breathing other people's air, how likely is it that foreign, jet-away holidays will be on the agenda this summer? As well as nervousness over travel, there is also the question of whether people will feel confident financially, given the current economic uncertainty, about splashing out on a holiday?

And, if abroad is out of the question for many, and even if the (admittedly better than usual so far this year) UK weather holds, will the prospect of being cramped Bournemouth-style on a British beach really be an attractive alternative option?

What is clear is that, for employers already managing a range of complex return-to-work scenarios, both in terms of re-integrating furloughed workers and encouraging home workers to come back to physical workspaces, there are potentially real challenges here.

These include managing holiday entitlement, managing the risk of burnout, and managing the practicalities of someone being 'on holiday' while still at home. Let's look at each in turn.

Managing taking holiday entitlement

The government in May set out guidance for employers on holiday entitlement during the pandemic, including entitlement for those who have been furloughed.

This included a temporary law allowing workers to carry over up to four weeks' paid leave into their next two holiday leave years if they are unable to take time off because, for example, they have been isolating or sick from coronavirus or have had to continue working.

However, in many respects, the wider challenge for employers at the moment is simply how to encourage workers to take holiday at all. Indeed, a recent study by recruiter Robert Half indicated more than a quarter of employees (28%) anticipated taking fewer days off this summer, with more than third (37%) saying they were planning to save up their holiday to take it later in the year.

"Many employers experienced a rush of leave cancellations when lockdown happened because, of course, many booked holidays couldn't go ahead. Since then, with people working from home and the international travel situation still uncertain, many have been waiting to see what happens and putting off taking leave," agrees Neil Davidson, Head of Personnel and Risk at WPA. "But the problem then is the risk of a significant backlog of leave building up which everyone wants to take at the same time."

An added issue, as this guidance explains, is that employers have an obligation to ensure that, as a minimum, employees take the four weeks' leave they are entitled to under the European Union's Working Time Directive, or risk compensation claims.

There are, however, tools employers can use. For example, the UK's Working Time Regulations 1998 do give employers the power to compel employees to take holiday (with appropriate notice). You don't, too, have to agree to the cancellation of a booked holiday request. You can limit the amount of holiday people are allowed to 'bank' or carry forward.

But from an employee morale and engagement perspective, nudging and encouraging employees to take and book in holiday is almost always better than compelling leave to be taken.

Advice from Acas emphasises all sides should be as flexible as they can about holiday during the pandemic. To that end, it is a good idea to:

  • talk about any plans to use or cancel holiday during
  • coronavirus as soon as possible
  • discuss why holiday might need to be taken or cancelled
  • listen to any concerns, either from staff or the employer
  • welcome and suggest ideas for other options
  • consider everyone's physical and mental wellbeing
  • be aware that it's a difficult time for both employers and staff.

Managing the risk of burnout

Within this, one key message to be getting across to employees is the importance of having a proper break to prevent exhaustion and burnout setting in, even if everyone accepts it may be difficult for many physically to get away this year.

The World Health Organization last year (before it found itself dealing with a global pandemic) added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases.

According to psychologists, signs of burnout to watch out for can include (but are not limited to) chronic fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness, impaired concentration, loss of appetite, anxiety and depression, vulnerability to inflection, and physical symptoms such as chest and stomach pain, dizziness, fainting, headaches, and shortness of breath.

There are many online resources available for employers on how to manage or prevent burnout (even if this pre-pandemic one somewhat unhelpfully advises employers to 'prevent staff taking work home'). A good starting point is the Health and Safety Executive's toolkits and resources (including its management standards) for managing work-related stress. In essence, it is about encouraging and reminding employees to take breaks and step away from work (especially in a homeoffice situation), training managers to spot and talk about signs of burnout, and ensuring workers feel able to switch off and recharge.

One practical way to do this as a manager is simply to be ensuring you are checking in regularly with your teams, whether they're now back in the office or still working remotely. This could be a putting in place a catch-up call everyday or ensuring you have a one-to-one with employees once a week.

Managing 'home holidays'

Of course, in a home-working situation, 'getting away' in this context may mean simply moving to another room or, if you're lucky, the garden, and therefore properly switching off can be challenging.

But, again, there are still things employers can do to help, much of it common sense. Ensuring employees have, if possible, set up a physically demarcated office or workspace will allow them more easily to close the door on work for a period of time.

If a home worker has booked time off, it is important to ensure managers know to treat this as if the worker is genuinely 'away'.

Out of office works for many while also making sure that suitable cover or delegation of tasks is put in place for the time they are off. Employees should be encouraged to take some responsibility for this as well as their line manager.

It may even be helpful to recommend the employee switches off notifications on their phone or even turns off their work computer for the duration, as being given 'permission' to physically switch off in this way may help an employee to switch off mentally too.

As WPA Commercial Director Mark Southern says: "In normal times, we'd all be looking forward at this point to getting away with friends or family. These aren't normal times, of course, but, especially given the stressful past few months and the likely challenges ahead from the autumn, it is more important than ever that employers talk to employees, particularly homeworking staff, about the need to 'get away', whatever that means in reality this year."

"Encouraging employees not to forget to take and book in leave can go a long way towards lessening the risk of burnout or exhaustion setting in. Even if that 'holiday' is just about sitting in the garden or doing some DIY, it is still important to refresh, recharge and reset."

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.