Dr Samantha Evans, Lecturer in Employee Relations & Human Resource Management at Kent Business School, discusses whether the COVID-19 lockdown and increase in remote working has caused a problem of annual leave being untaken
Annual leave is an important opportunity as it represents a vital break from the workplace to spend more time at home and be with family, or from the perspective of an employer; a chance to replenish energy levels and return to work with a fresh perspective.
Yet with the COVID-19 lockdown compelling many employees that are able to work from home to do so, the rationale for taking leave seems diminished. There is no daily commute to escape, school closures mean many parents are spending more time than ever with their children, while employees without families at home may find work a welcome distraction between hobbies and relaxation. We are repeatedly told that rest is vital to both our productivity and mental health. Indeed, rest is an essential component of good work.
Employees who take regular holidays can be more motivated about their work and perform more effectively than those who do not. They are less prone to mistakes and are less likely to suffer from stress because they have regular opportunity to rest, which also means they might take less sickness absence. So taking breaks from work, whether that work is based at home or in a workplace, benefits both employees and their employers.
Take breaks during the working day
Such rest includes the importance of taking breaks during the working day in addition to annual leave. And work, wherever located, is still working with its requisite pressures and demands. For some, the lockdown has increased those pressures and demands, with technologies that facilitate twenty-four/seven availability for work. Notwithstanding the toll of balancing work and childcare for working parents while schools and nurseries remain closed. While working from home can offer greater flexibility over your schedule it’s far easier to blur the boundaries between your home and work life and experience a poorer work-life balance as a result. So making time to takes breaks from working is arguably even more important when working at home during the COVID-19 lockdown. But how can workers do this, and how can their managers support them in this?
A good starting point for employees is to schedule a lunch break every day and think about how to spend that time. For workers who may be working unconventional hours, a traditional lunch hour may not work, but a longer break at some point of the working day remains important. It gives employees something to look forward to at the beginning of the workday as well as providing an opportunity to refocus and revitalise for the remainder of their work time. Managers need to encourage their staff to take such breaks and emphasise the right of their employees to have at least one uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during a working day of longer than 6 hours a day. For many staff working at home during the lockdown, their job makes them reliant on sitting at a desk using a screen. For health and safety reasons, employees should take frequent breaks from their screens and move regularly to avoid sitting at their desks for any length of time.
Employee wellbeing is important for all staff regardless of their work location and line managers are key to an organisation’s responsibility for workforce well-being and performance. Leading by example is one of the easiest ways for managers to encourage their staff to take regular breaks from their work during the day. Making sure their team know they are taking such breaks and why it is important to do so is also critical. The same applies to annual leave. Managers should make sure they are taking their own annual leave while following up with any of their team who haven’t taken any leave during the lockdown. Regular individual check-ins with staff to assess well-being will help a line manager recognise potential problems.
Early on in the COVID-19 lockdown, the UK government amended regulations to allow workers who have not taken all of their statutory annual leave entitlement to carry it over into the next 2 leave years. While this might be seen to encourage staff not to take their allocated leave, the move is aimed primarily at key workers on who the country has relied on to work during the pandemic. The keywords in the change to the regulations are that it only applies to workers who have unable to take all their leave due to COVID-19. Employees who have chosen not to take their annually allocated leave because of working from home run the risk of losing that allocation and all the essential benefits it holds.
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