Inbox — cleared. Out of office — on. Computer — shut down. Door — closed. You’re free! But are you? If you’ve taken a week off to refresh and recharge (read more about why that’s important here), you want seven days of just that. Seven days where your inbox isn’t the first thing you think of when you wake up, when you’re not wondering if Glen from Accounts really understood your memo, stressing that you’re just going to arrive back to a week’s worth of work that’s been ignored and now every email you receive is marked ‘URGENT’. It’s enough to put you off even thinking about booking those flights, isn’t it?
A recent study found that up to 40% of UK employees aren’t taking their full paid holiday allowance. Worse still, of those who do take a ‘holiday’, many are still checking and responding to emails. Your holiday is your time to relax, recharge, and refresh — it’s time that should be yours alone. You’ve earned it. In this article, I talk you through five things you can do before taking time off to make sure that it’s exactly that.
It sounds simple, but the first thing you need to do is recognise that you need and are entitled to holiday, and to make it a priority. There is always something else to be done, another task to tick off the to-do list. If you wait for the ‘ideal time’ to take holiday, work commitments will always take priority. Your annual leave is time set aside for you to rest and relax — this benefits both you and your employer, don’t feel guilty about taking it. Have you ever stayed late, working away in a frenzy to get something “super urgent” back for an “absolute deadline” only to get an out of office autoreply when you return it? Yep, your clients and colleagues are taking holiday, too.
The key to making sure you take your full holiday allowance, as with most things in life, is planning. Often, the people who are best at this are parents. It’s not unheard of for whole-year holiday schedules to be submitted on January 2nd. You don’t need to be this rigid, you can pencil in some dates that will work for you, but the key to is to think ahead and factor in some time off when you think you might need it. Knowing you have a holiday coming up can help with work pressures and remind you of why all your hard work is worth it.
This is for everyone’s benefit. If you want the feeling of freedom and release when you leave the office for your holiday, free of niggles, worries or doubts, you’ll need all loose ends tied up and no last-minute panics or stress. Whilst you obviously need to let your employer and your colleagues know that you’re taking holiday, you should let any clients or relevant external parties know, too. Give them a head’s up a month in advance, and then remind them closer to the time. They’ll know to raise and address any outstanding issues, book meetings and calls, and complete tasks before you leave, and not to raise new ones until your return.
Start the handover process early, too. Start copying relevant colleagues in on emails relating to projects they’ll be covering for you, invite them to meetings, delegate upcoming tasks that can’t wait until your return — it’s important, though, that you don’t overload them early and exhaust their goodwill before you’ve even left! Treat your clients with the same courtesy — call or email them to let them know who to contact in your absence, and introduce them if they’re not already known to the client.
Committing to, arranging, and then actually taking holiday is only half the battle. You then need to make sure you can actually enjoy it. That means no emails. No phone calls. You. Are. Not. There. Lack of, incomplete, or ineffective handover makes it impossible for someone to cover you properly. If you know this, you won’t be able to relax while you’re away, you’re more likely to get email queries or phone calls, and you’re more likely to answer them. You may as well be in the office, right?
Don’t be precious about projects or tasks — delegation is your friend. Think about what will need to be done, or who will need to be checked in on while you’re away to ensure you don’t come back to a mountain of stress that will immediately undo all the hard work you’ve done relaxing. Leave a list, assign tasks, give detailed instructions. Empower people to make decisions and judgements where they might be needed, so you’re not putting obstacles in the way of progress in your absence. If you have a deputy, this is a great opportunity to help them grow and develop — if you step in and do it all for them, how will they learn? The more opportunity they get to cover you, the better they’ll be at it, and the more relaxed you’ll feel taking time away. It’s a win-win for all involved. If you don’t have a deputy, perhaps you could set up a reciprocal arrangement with a colleague?
I cannot stress enough how important it is to set an out-of-office, and then to stick to it. If you don’t clearly signal that you are not at work, how can you expect others to act accordingly? Your out-of-office should be informative and unambiguous — ideally, once people receive it, they won’t email you again until your return. You should clearly state your dates of absence, and do use the word ‘holiday’ — this sends a clear message that you are not on company time, and is more likely to be respected. Think about it this way: would you knock on a door with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign? If you feel a need to be extra authoritative, consider including “I will not be checking my work phone or email,” even if just to hold yourself to account on this. Be polite, assure the reader you will get back to them on your return, and point them in the direction of an appropriate contact point if their query is urgent.
Finally, my secret top tip — take an extra day. Going from zero to a hundred, from beach to boardroom, is not pleasant for anyone. Aside from the stress of delayed flights and possible hangovers, a recovery day will make your return to work much smoother and help avoid those post-holiday blues. You could also arrange to work from home on your first day back, so you can clear your inbox and attend to any pressing issues without distraction.
Holidays are essential to maintaining health and wellbeing, and healthy, happy employees are essential to the good functioning of any business. It can be easy to let them slide and put what seems to be more pressing or important work commitments first, but it’s crucial that you treat your holiday as much of a priority. Taking time to plan your holiday time and make arrangements for your cover will help ensure you take your full allowance, and that you aren’t worrying about (or, more importantly, doing) work on holiday. You’ve earned a break, take it, and enjoy the mental space it is intended to give you.
Finally, one bonus tip! To make the whole process of arranging leave easier, implement a system that makes the process easy for everyone, so that there are no last-minute panics, double bookings, or confusion over cover. If you don’t have a system already set up to manage leave, days off, and working patterns, you might want to check out Leave Dates. The ability to see everyone’s availability all in one place, in a visual and clear way, makes planning projects, holiday, meetings, and events much less stressful. Leave Dates removes the effort of manually managing leave and absence, giving you more time to get on with more important things, like running a business! The app is free for small teams and works on laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
Don't forget to check out our infographic: The Ultimate Time Off Preparation Checklist