Everyone needs a holiday from work every now and again, but is our current structure for vacation time the most efficient for employee productivity and satisfaction? Perhaps not if the rate of absenteeism in the UK is anything to go by.

Last year, an estimated 137.3 million days of work were lost as a result of sickness absence, equating to 4.3 days per employee. Although this is the lowest it’s ever been – it was 7.2 back in 1993 – the overall number is still incredibly high, especially when you consider that 4.3 days is just an average and not respective of each individual worker.

It’s been suggested that the reason this absentee rate is so high might be related to paid holiday and the stress associated with it. As it stands, employees receive several weeks’ worth of vacation time every year which they can take whenever they want provided it’s signed off by their boss. Usually people opt to take a week off at a time in order to enjoy a holiday somewhere, with some days reserved as safety for the future. The problem is: how many people actually enjoy their time away?

The lead up to these vacations are spent full of stress trying to get the time off and then preparing work for the duration of their absence so that there’s nothing needing their attention when they’re not in the office. All this builds up so that by the time they’re jetting off on their holiday, they’re still full of stress, and most of the vacation is spent dreading having to go back to work.

By not being able to enjoy their break, employees are more likely to call in sick in the weeks afterwards because they didn’t get the relaxation they needed. There are a number of ways that this traditional structure of vacation time can be adjusted to try and reduce absenteeism, but they normally cause more problems. The most notable is the open-ended, unlimited approach which dictates that employees are free to take as much time off as they please and/or feel they deserve. This approach actually prevents workers from taking time off because they don’t want to stand out as the person who seems to be ‘slacking’. This can actually increase absenteeism because by not taking holidays, employees will become overworked with stress and end up having to take sick leave.

Shashank Nigam, CEO of airline marketing firm SimpliFlying, believes he’s found a strategy that would give employees the time off they deserve while also ensuring they come back from their break motivated and productive. Although it has a slightly intimidating name – scheduled mandatory vacation – preliminary research has shown it to actually be rather effective at improving productivity in the office.

Nigam tested it through an experiment which dictated that employees had a scheduled week off every seven weeks. They were not allowed any input into when their week off was, and they were banned from having any contact with the office during their time away. Doing so actually resulted in a financial punishment – they weren’t paid for the whole week!

At the end of the experiment, employee productivity, creativity and happiness were all rated for before and after the mandatory breaks and all of these aspects displayed an increase post-holiday – creativity rose by 33%, happiness by 25% and productivity by 13%. While the sample size was small and this research in the early stages, it shows promise.

Feedback from employees who participated in the experiment found that there were some issues, with frequency of time off being one of them. Due to SimpliFlying being relatively small, the rate of people being away was disrupting work rhythm, suggesting that the amount of weeks between time off should differ depending on the size of the company. Moreover, they found that a lot needs to be considered before allocating time off to ensure that it doesn’t affect people working on projects together. If people in the same team take a break one after the other then, again, the flow can be disrupted and the work suffers.

It’ll probably be a long while before any system like this is applied on a major scale, especially if employers don’t allow their staff to have any say in when they get time off. For now, we just have to focus on the fact that absenteeism in the workplace has been decreasing and there are ways of dealing with it, so even if the structure in place for holidays isn’t the most efficient, the problem is still going down slightly.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.
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