Annual leave it out
Unless you don’t have children or anything to do with them, you’ll know that the summer holidays are fast approaching. Those hot, exciting days which seemed to last forever when we were children seemed to speed up rapidly as we got older, before once again dragging on for an eternity as our children demand entertainment in order to keep them from each others throats until term time rolls round once more.
With this in mind I have the full intention of taking some annual leave in the next few months, if only for Mrs. WLLG’s sanity. I have no idea what we will do during this time of two parents – money is too tight for any holiday and even day trips are stretching it – but I’m hoping just by being there I’m doing something good for the whole family. I might even enjoy it myself.
This whole thing got me thinking about annual leave, and my changing opinions of how best to manage it over the years. From my first job to my latest one, managing my annual leave has been a bit of a stuggle for me, and I’m only just beginning to get to grips with it and strike something close to a balance of sorts; from discussion with colleagues it’s something that many of them also don’t feel as if they have got it quite right.
When I began my working life I found myself surrounded by some passionate, dedicated officers who would tell me to do as they said, not as they did. They thought nothing of walking into the office at 7.30am (obstensibly to “beat the traffic”) and not leave it again until at least 8.00pm. Lunch breaks happened at the desk or in meetings, and e-mails from them would greet me each morning having been sent at midnight or over the weekend. Of course, this had the knock-on effect of them rarely taking any annual leave and losing whatever was left come end of year.
In fact, the organisation had to change its leave schedule specifically because of this problem: with the leave year running concurrently to the financial year we risked regularly having no staff around for the majority of March and the begining of April. A simple change was made – running leave from birthdays to birthdays instead of to financial years – which meant it remained easy for staff to track their leave entitlement whilst limiting the impact of end-of-year holiday problems.
That being said, changing schedules is far easier than changing cultures, and whilst it was officially frowned upon there was little that was done to make sure people took leave throughout the year. It felt as if it was an unspoken badge of honour to have leave left over at the end of the year, the more the better. Some even managed to end up with more time off available to them than they started with – the wonders of Time Off In Lieu (the aptly named TOIL entitlement) seeing nicely to this. The most I saw available was 50 days (which actually was far less than it should have been but they only counted one and a half months of TOIL) to be taken in the last three weeks.
Whilst this was in the voluntary sector, similar attitudes are also found in some parts of the public sector. Whilst some are able to book in every day off they want almost as soon as their leave card hits their desks, many others find it an awful lot more challenging. A few days may be booked initially with the full intention of taking the rest at some point, although this very rarely then arrives. Staff keep a week or two in the back pocket for emergencies or rainy days, and then look surprised when they are warned in February that those rainy days didn’t arrive.
Why we do this is a little baffling. Some of it can be put down to simply being busy. Many times I’ve heard the excuse that “I’d love to take some leave but it’s really busy at the moment, I’ll take some when it calms down a bit”. When was the last time things calmed down a bit? If you are anything like my colleagues, things always seem to be busy with busier times ahead in the short term. However, people seem to insist that things will fall apart if they personally are not there to oversee it all.
And this leads on to a more recent phenomon; the fear that such a situation might just come to pass. The question feared is “what if nobody notices I’m away?”, with the fear that if things carry on as normal someone might just think that you’re post is not quite so necessary after all. This might not pan out for some time, but from small seeds such as this might future restructure problems grow. If your colleagues can cope perfectly adequately without you, perhaps they might just put you on permanent holiday next time round. This entirely ignores the fact that a short break is very different to not being around permanently, and that you will be setting your projects up to live without you for a week (not to mention possibly phoning in during that week or checking your inbox remotely).
There is also the unique situation and problems that ongoing or potential restructures might have, the fear that something important might be missed that could be the difference between success or failure at the interview stage. It might only be picking up on a news story, or making a contribution to a meeting, or just overhearing your manager saying something which reveals some skill or other that is being looked for in the restructure; information which could prove invaluable. It’s also about staying on people’s radar during the run up to interviews; the fear that out of sight is out of mind and that whilst you are away someone else may just be getting some limelight.
We all need to take a bit of a look at things and realise that annual leave, and in particular time physically, emotionally and mentally away from the office, is vital to our health. Physically it gives us time to recharge our batteries and recover from the strains long hours and constant pressure puts on our bodies. It allows us time to relax our mind from the constant thinking it has to do and allows our subconscious the chance to address some of those more tricky or wicked problems which appear insolvable in the office and it allows us to stabilise ourselves emotionally by doing some things we enjoy and spending some quality time with the people we love.
With the very real danger that we will lose a significant proportion of our paid leave entitlement in the near future I’d recommend you take a look at your leave card today, see how much leave and TOIL you have available to you and start booking some time in now. A week in the summer perhaps, another in the autumn, a few extra days at Christmas (or Winterval…) and maybe even a day or two in February. This gives you something to look forward to now and some time scheduled in for you to enjoy later. It even gives you a chance to plan your work so the whole world doesn’t fall apart while you’re not there.
And trust me; it won’t.
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