Best practices for managing employee leave and working time

29 August 2018

Every country has its own unique laws outlining the types and amounts of paid time off employers must provide their workers. Leave types include (but aren’t limited to) vacation, sick and family, and all are at least partly intended to ensure employees can balance their professional and personal lives.

One notable trend in recent years that relates to paid leave is the dramatic rise in workplace flexibility, including both when and where workers are allowed to perform their duties. In the UK, employees who have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks or longer have the legal right to formally apply for flexible working.

The UK defines flexible working as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, e.g., having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.” Significantly, the law applies to all employees, not just parents and other caregivers, and employers must address each request in a defined reasonable manner.

Last October, Singapore introduced the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements, a voluntary program intended to help local businesses meet the demands of a global workforce that wants more flexibility. Just a month after the program’s introduction, over 250 organizations employing 210,000 people had agreed to use the standard.

Given changing laws, official programs and employer policies and practices that promote workplace flexibility, it’s easy to forget that it was not a primary factor in employee engagement just a decade ago. Workplace flexibility is now widely considered one of the top four engagement drivers. Millennial workers in particular are passionate about workplace flexibility. In a blog post earlier this year, one of my colleagues cited a study showing that 69 percent of millennials want more flexible hours, while 64 percent want to be able to work remotely.

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to workplace flexibility. The ability to work remotely is of course primarily enabled by the rise of technologies such as laptops and smartphones. And the very tools that allow us to work from home and at all hours also make it difficult for many people to clearly separate working time from personal time, even when on vacation or during holidays. This inability to switch off from work can lead to stress, which can in turn can result in serious health problems.

Some lawmakers, unions and governments have recognized this problem and in recent years have taken steps to promote a healthy work-life balance in our connected world. In France, there are various working-time systems under different collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), and under these agreements senior employees can enjoy significant autonomy.

Given rising concerns over the inability of workers to switch off from work, French CBAs require employers to take proactive steps to ensure employees adhere to mandatory rest periods. As of 2015, for example, some 250,000 French tech workers covered by the SYNTEC CBA have been guaranteed 11 consecutive hours of uninterrupted time off, including work-related interruptions from smartphones and other technologies. In addition, employers must meet with individual employees at least every six months to review their working and leave times.

In a 2015 and 2016 study examining work-life balance, Sweden’s government conducted a 23-month trial at an elder-care facility in which workers moved from an eight-hour work day to a six-hour one. The nurses in the study “overall were more active, less sick, less stressed and had less back and neck pain than nurses working eight-hour shifts.” The study also found the workers were more efficient, though in the short term the costs of hiring extra workers to cover for the shorter shifts outweighed gains in efficiency.

Employers themselves have also taken notice of the need to help employees manage working time and leave time. Not only is work-related stress associated with health problems and employee absences, employees who fail to take their allotted leave can accumulate significant leave balances.

In most jurisdictions, an employee must be paid his or her leave balance at the end of employment with a company. Often this is calculated on an average wage, which includes not only base salary but commissions and other entitlements. In countries such as Australia where the balance rolls over from year to year, this can result in significant payments due to employees at the end of their tenures. Many employers fail to track, and budget for, these liabilities.

In order to mitigate leave-balance liabilities — and to promote work-life balance and employee health — many employers implement employee-leave policies that include regular working-time reviews similar to the ones mandated by the French CBA mentioned above. Employers should also consider adding the following items to their HR policies and practices:

  • Encourage holiday requests as far in advance as possible
  • Help employees schedule leave when it suits the employee and meets business requirements
  • Develop a holiday policy that includes any minimum staffing requirements
  • Do not pay out unused-leave balances unless required by law
  • Empower managers to approve reasonable requests for flexible schedules

While some of these policies — such as the one mandating regular employee working-time reviews — may seem onerous and even superfluous, the benefits can be substantial. Not only do such polices promote employee engagement and retention, they can lead to efficiencies. As the Swedish study on six-hour workdays suggests — and as other studies demonstrate — increased time off often results in increased worker productivity.

Employers should also remember that they have a duty of care to protect their employees, which includes promoting a reasonable work-life balance. Showing that you care about your employees’ work-life balance through clear, worker-friendly policies and practices will in the long run benefit both your organization and your workforce.

Suzie Woodcock, Senior HR Consultant, contributed to this article.