When the pandemic shut everything down, workers around the world had a choice: swap sun, sand and sea holidays for a depressing staycation in their living rooms — where many also happen to work — or cancel their plans completely. Others who thought they would lose their jobs if they took time off during a period of huge economic uncertainty had no choice at all. So they decided to wait out the pandemic to take their holidays when things got back to normal. Now, it’s too late.
“I have not taken any time off since January,” says Daniel, a strategic planner for a telecoms company. His company told him that he wasn’t allowed to roll annual leave into 2021, so he had to schedule all his vacation days in the last quarter of the year. “I will be off one week every month for the remainder of the year. I will probably end up staying home.”
In the UK, people took an average of 3.9 holiday breaks in 2019, and most enjoyed a mix of staycations and trips abroad. When the data for this year is eventually published, it’s likely to be drastically different.
A report by HR software business BrightHR suggests that 28 per cent of UK workers have cancelled holiday in 2020. April and May, when Covid-19 cases in the UK were at their peak, had the most cancellations of existing annual leave requests. Employers should find these figures “troubling”, the company says, because the final quarter of the year could create a backlog of burned out workers who can no longer be productive.
Those who have entered month nine of no holiday are in uncharted territory. There is very little up-to-date research on the effects of zero vacations on productivity, or mental and physical health in a time of crisis.
Data collected in 1991 from the Framingham longitudinal study, a research project that started in 1948, showed that female US homeowners who took a holiday once every six years or less had twice the risk of developing heart attacks or having a heart problem than those who took time off twice a year.
Regular holidays can be more important than exercise or a healthy diet, according to findings from the University of Helsinki. A 40-year project tracked 1,200 middle-aged male executives and found that those who took less than 21 days holiday a year had a higher risk of early death.
Office workers who don’t take a break away from work are likely to sleep less, have higher stress levels and don’t exercise enough. In fact, researchers believed that their own study might have had an adverse effect on the subjects who didn’t take enough holidays, because it might have “added stress to their lives”.
Professor Timo Strandberg, who led the study, says that there is no research to suggest any country has the perfect amount of holiday leave to avoid these issues. In the UK, people have an average of between 25 and 28 days a year annual leave. In Finland — where his research was conducted — people tend to have four weeks off, which they take at set times of the year, the biggest chunk in July. In the US, people have two weeks of holiday depending on their jobs. But in this scenario, cramming all holidays in the last three months of the year won’t do anyone any good, he says.
It might now be better to have several shorter breaks during the year rather than one very long holiday, even if you don’t go anywhere, he explains. “There is research that shows even three days of work or five days of a long holiday weekend, in an environment outside of the home and workplace can be useful.”
Then there’s the issue of going on holiday and knowing there is nobody covering for you while you’re off. Data from the Institute of Leadership and Management in 2010 showed that 40 per cent of workers do not come back to the office feeling more relaxed from holiday, while 90 per cent worried they will return to a deluge of emails. A third of staff worked on holiday to keep ahead of their heavy workloads, 80 per cent of people checked their emails, and half take calls on a break, the survey found.
People’s attitudes towards taking a break have worsened since then, says Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership and Management. Employees are working extra hours during the pandemic because they feel they “owe” their commuting time to their employers, and are hiding the stress that they are struggling with during the pandemic. “If managers are looking after themselves you can be pretty sure they will be looking after their staff,” she says. “I think it’s more likely to be that nobody’s looking after anybody.”
Seven in ten European SME business owners have already said that they are not likely to take more than five days’ holiday in the next 12 months, because of the economic pressures of the pandemic. Less than four per cent of business owners take their allocated 25-28 days’ holiday anyway. And if they haven’t taken time off, employees may feel like they can’t either.
“If there is a situation where everybody’s got 20 holiday days and the only solution to that is to shut down in December, that’s commercial suicide,” Cooper says. He adds that employers should be sitting down with their staff and explaining a clear plan to solve the problem. “If people understand why you’re trying to do something, that’s so much better than if you impose some draconian rule on them.”
There is a stop-gap for people who have reached a stalemate in negotiations over holidays. The government introduced a temporary law allowing employees and workers to carry over up to four weeks’ paid holiday into 2021 and 2022. This law applies for any holiday the employee or worker does not take because of coronavirus: if people are self-isolating, or they have had to continue working and have not been able to take holiday, or those that have been furloughed. But the uptake will depend on what businesses are willing to agree to.
Companies who decide to take a hard line on holidays should tread carefully, according to employment lawyers at Farrer & Co, who suggest they give “careful consideration” to how they communicate with employees. “Unilaterally forcing employees to use their holiday entitlement in such circumstances (especially now there is greater flexibility to carry-over) may not be a popular move.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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