If you’re a part of today’s workforce, you won’t have escaped the phrase ‘work-life balance’, which is wheeled out so frequently that it’s almost lost all meaning.
While this utopic ideal has been harnessed to promote all manner of ideas and products, at its core is a maxim that is as important and valuable as ever: work is not everything. It is a part of life, but not all of it. There is life beyond it, and that life is important.
To achieve a balance between work and life, we should not prioritise one at the expense of the other.
We sometimes need to step away from work to satisfy the ‘life’ part of the equation. For most of us, this means taking some leave. This could be a week’s annual leave for a much-needed holiday, a mental health day to recalibrate in a particularly stressful period, or an extended sabbatical to explore something new.
This time to relax and reset, turning our focus away from work-related tasks and priorities, enables us to return invigorated and refreshed with new energy and motivation.
As a manager or business owner, giving employees this time – indeed, actively encouraging it – is not only a core component of good, ethical management but a real productivity driver.
To ensure no one is negatively impacted by colleagues taking leave, the process for managing staff leave should be carefully considered and implemented, rather than an afterthought or ad hoc arrangement.
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Staff leave is an inherently double-edged sword.
It’s easy to see its value and to cherish a generous leave policy when you’re the one relaxing on the beach with a pina colada, phone on silent or left behind at home (or at the bottom of the pool – no judgment), a book in hand and not a care in the world. But when it’s Sally from marketing’s turn in the sun and you’re getting pinged every hour with all Sally’s redirected emails, and next week Frank’s off to New York for a study trip… you can feel all that fresh energy and motivation rapidly dissipating.
It's easy to see how staff leave can have a negative impact on productivity if it results in staff shortages or unmanageable workloads for remaining colleagues. This can increase workplace pressure and stress, leading to lower motivation and morale, resentment and potentially even burnout, if the situation is allowed to become part of the culture.
Unhappy and unmotivated staff are, unsurprisingly, not very productive.
Finding qualified cover can also be difficult, particularly where roles are specialised, seasonal or have a relationship component, and absent staff can create communication issues and disrupt workflow.
None of this sounds like it makes for a positive and productive workplace, but all of these issues can be overcome with better oversight, forward planning and good management.
On the subject of good practice, creating and implementing a staff leave policy, and encouraging staff to take full advantage of it by building a culture that is embracing rather than scathing toward staff taking time off, is a key tenet of ethical management.
Even if staff leave had a wholly negative impact on the business (which we know it doesn’t), it is not fair nor wise to put the weight of an organisation’s success on any individual’s shoulders or expect them to prioritise it at the cost of their mental or physical health.
Employees have a legal right to a certain amount of leave and it is in the best interest of both staff and management to promote rather than discourage leave-taking. To this end, leave policies should be fair, transparent and easily available/clearly communicated to all relevant parties.
If you don’t make this a priority, staff may get the impression that you’re not all that keen on actually putting the policy into practice.
Communication is hugely important here, in various ways and contexts – communication of the policy to the workforce, communication of when and how leave is being taken and by whom, an effective handover between the leave-takers and their cover/department, and communication of any anticipated or actual issues that arise in someone’s absence, as well as a full debrief/handover upon their return. This ensures no absences come unexpectedly, there is sufficient time to prepare, and nothing slips through the cracks while anyone is away.
A well-managed leave policy helps foster a supportive and inclusive work culture, which has a huge positive impact on employee satisfaction, happiness and engagement – though a worthwhile end in itself, this also leads to greater productivity.
We’ve talked before about how happy staff are productive staff and it’s worthwhile reiterating.
With mental ill health, particularly stress and anxiety, being the most common cause for long-term absence from work, the productivity benefits of ensuring all your staff have sufficient time to decompress and rest should be all too clear, particularly for those in highly stressful or emotionally taxing roles. What’s more, when you prioritise employees’ wellbeing, they bring their best selves to work – those best selves are not only more productive, but better equipped for creative and innovative thinking.
A robust staff leave culture and policy, paired with a simple staff holiday booking system, is also hugely appealing to both existing staff and potential new recruits, providing retention and recruitment benefits that can drive cost savings as well as boosting staff morale and job satisfaction. Paid time off is one of the most popular employee perks across all industries and company sizes – it is possible to love your job but not want to be there every day.
The younger generations entering the workforce are not interested in the corporate burnout culture of the nineties and noughties, and rightly so. With the average time spent with an employer now less than 5 years (in the UK and US) – no one is going to stick around out of loyalty to the company or outdated beliefs in a ‘job for life’ if they’re not happy at work.
The staff and the organisation can benefit from the cross-training opportunities that present themselves when a colleague is absent and their role needs to be covered. This promotes knowledge-sharing, upskilling and professional development, as well as a greater understanding of the different roles within and areas of the business, fostering understanding and appreciation across departments and perhaps uncovering potential efficiency savings.
Rather than seeing covering an absent staff member as an unwelcome burden on top of their usual tasks, when the management of leave and cover is pre-emptive, protective and proactive, staff can embrace the chance to gain a fresh perspective, learn a new skill, or even just enjoy a different view from the window for a time, knowing their workload and projects will be unaffected.
Furthermore, from a business perspective, it is never wise to get into a situation where a single individual is entirely indispensable, as this makes you extremely vulnerable to their loss or prolonged absence.
Rather than dreading the day Lucy, the only person who knows the backend of your business-critical software, submits her holiday request and desperately trying to stall and distract her, time and effort would be better spent training up her colleagues so that the business won’t grind to a halt in her absence.
Clearly, there are some compelling reasons why staff leave is a pretty great thing, both for the individual and in terms of wider organisational gains, among which is improved productivity.
While there’s certainly scope for absent staff to negatively impact productivity, these situations tend to result from sloppy management and a failure to prioritise the creation and communication of leave policy, rather than the absence itself.
Luckily for everyone, the day-to-day management of leave can actually be achieved pretty easily, freeing up management time to focus on fostering a culture that promotes it and facilitating knowledge and skills-sharing – both critical to ensuring staff leave drives increased rather than decreased productivity.
The first, essential step is the creation of comprehensive policies and procedures around leave. Depending on the size and nature of your organisation, these can be simple or more complex. How generous these are is an organisational decision, though increasingly, there are arguments that the more generous, the better. The key thing is that there is a policy, that it is fair, unambiguous and, perhaps most important of all, that it is communicated. No one can benefit from something they don’t know about.
Once the policy has been created and communicated, the ongoing management of staff leave should be a doddle as there are abundant technology solutions that allow you to streamline the permission requesting/granting process, schedule and track leave, and have oversight of staffing levels at any given time via a staff leave calendar.
Leave Dates is one such piece of technology, a software solution with a live shared wall chart and online leave planner showing every team member’s availability and enabling staff members to check and track their remaining leave allocation and request days off without having to pester HR.
One of our clients, a medical writing agency in the healthcare communications sector, saw significant productivity benefits when they decided to prioritise leave management and use technology to make it easier for everyone to take the leave they needed and deserved without it impacting their rapidly growing business. Carl Owen from Word Monster told us:
“In the early stages, when we were just three or four people, it was getting quite tricky to keep an eye on everyone’s time and know when everyone was in or out. Once we got beyond this, spreadsheets no longer worked.
The challenge was not knowing who was off. When two key people are off at the same time, you want to be able to plan for those scenarios. We were struggling with a lack of foresight around who was off when.
It is worth having a specialist tool. Leave Dates was easy to use and gave us clarity. It meant that we could create and update our policies. We have a lot of different leave types – set days, extra days for birthdays, a long-service benefit.”
With technology making leave management really easy to do, there is no reason why anyone in your organisation should see staff leave as anything but a great thing, both for individual well-being and for productivity at work.
Good leave management makes for an attractive, ethical employer and signals the value you place on your staff; it is also an excellent productivity driver and creates endless opportunities for growth, knowledge-sharing, and innovation.
All you need to do is zoom out and see the big picture that staff leave isn’t about absence at all, it’s about protecting and enforcing boundaries so that when people are at work, they can be fully present.
Did you know? 9/10 of our customers would recommend Leave Dates to someone needing to streamline their HR. Be your most productive self, sign up for your free Leave Dates account and see how easy it is to keep your team's leave on track. Available on desktop and mobile.