Stockpiling annual leave stifles success

Hoarding holidays has an economic cost, many say

Alex, the dapper British banker who is the main character in the cartoon of the same name, was recently landed with a workaholic American boss who had to be forced to take a holiday.

A piece of comic license? Not totally — in the US, an increasing number of workers are foregoing some or all of their annual leave and in some cases, firms are having to shut down the office to get staff to take their vacation.

According to the New York Times, “ambition, fear of being fired, feeling indispensable and self-imposed getaway guilt all help to explain why workers do not use all of their vacation days”.

The article quotes a Ellen Kapit , a Manhattan real estate agent who says there’s an attitude in some quarters that holidays are for wimps.

“There’s a feeling that overwork is the red badge of courage”, Kapit says.

“Mostly people work because they want to … It’s mostly something that we’re doing to ourselves”.

It’s not just in the US that this is happening: Tourism Australia recently commissioned a study on annual leave stockpiling, claiming it was damaging the country’s internal tourism industry.

Tourism Australia’s media release announcing the survey cited earlier research from AC Neilson showing that there were 70 million untaken annual leave days in 2005.

According to Tourism Australia’s own research, “more than 60% of full-time Australian workers do not use their full annual leave entitlement and more than one third of full time workers do not take any annual leave in a year at all”.

Reasons cited include lack of resourcing and back-up while on leave and the fear of work piling up while they’re away, “particularly working through the email build-up upon return from leave”.

Personal reasons, as well as work-related ones, also figured as reasons for not taking leave: “fitting travel and holiday plans around a partner or travel companion is a barrier for 33% of respondents, while a further 22% cite childrens’ commitments as a barrier to taking leave”.

The time involved in organising a holiday also emerged as a factor in not taking one, as did

choosing where to go.

Tourism Australia’s media release quoted several commentators on the health hazards of not taking annual leave, such as burnout and increased risk of heart attacks and illness, and the positive effects of workers coming back refreshed after a holiday are so obvious they hardly need mentioning.

There’s also a financial cost to not taking your leave entitlement, as employers have to pay for leave not taken in the year, and untaken leave is listed as a liability in company accounts.

So how is the situation in New Zealand? Data is a bit harder to come by than for the US and Australia, but the TIANZ (Tourism Industry Association of New Zealand) submission on the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee on the Holidays (Four Weeks Annual leave) Bill does some surmising: “TIANZ believes that unused leave is a problem in New Zealand, although the New Zealand experience is not well documented or researched” and that “Given the overall economic and cultural similarities between New Zealand and Australia, it is reasonable to expect that the conclusions from [Australian surveys on the subject] would be relevant to New Zealand.”

TIANZ suggested a “use it or lose it” policy for annual leave entitlement, meaning those who don’t take it don’t get paid for the untaken time off.

Another approach is to compel reluctant leave-takers to take their entitlements — this writer once worked with someone who had stockpiled a large amount of leave, creating a liability for his employer, and was forced to take every Friday off for several months.

What to do about the increasing amount of untaken leave obviously isn’t simple and can’t be boiled down to a quick-fix, but Tourism Australia’s answer has a nice ring to it — it has launched a campaign against holiday hoarding called “No leave, no life”.

Regular Natural Resources columnist Kirstin Mills is on leave

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