How to write a radical holiday policy

We all need time off work, for ourselves and our organisations. What does the law say? How do we write a policy that reflects different people's needs?

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We all need an opportunity to take a break from work, to rest and recharge, spend time with family and friends, sometimes just to have the time to do practical things such as attend appointments etc. This is important for our wellbeing and for our workplace – working constantly and/or excessively is one of the main causes of work related stress and rarely tends to result in a positive workplace culture or high levels of job satisfaction – not great for us as individuals, for our co-workers or our businesses. But we should also recognise that we all have differing needs around time off and approaching our policies around holidays with this in mind can help us to create a radical policy that supports our needs.

What does the law say?

It’s a requirement under The Employment Rights Act 1996 that any organisation that employs people provides a written statement of terms and conditions (employment contracts) which includes how much annual leave they are entitled to and whether that includes bank holidays.

Organisations are legally required to provide all workers and employees with paid holiday. This is a contractual right. In the UK, the minimum paid holiday entitlement is 5.6 weeks per year. Bank holidays can be included in this.

This entitlement is made up of 4 weeks of leave applicable under the EU Working Time Directive which has been maintained following Brexit, and an additional 1.6 weeks of leave granted under the UK Working Time Regulations.

The law around calculating holiday pay is complex, especially for zero hours workers and those with irregular hours or pay. The law around how you calculate holiday pay and what you include in those calculations changed in 2020, so if you haven’t reviewed your holiday policy/process recently, you may not be using the right information. 

It’s very important that everyone employed by the organisation understands their entitlement and knows how and when they can take holiday, and that the policy is applied fairly and equally. 

Holiday policies can help us manage our work effectively, not just as individuals, but also as a whole organisation. They provide clarity around the procedures to be followed to take paid leave, transparency around how this is granted and calculated, as well as helping us to ensure effective organisational planning around periods of leave. This is important because failure to provide paid leave, to ensure employees have sufficient opportunity to take their leave, to calculate leave correctly, or to offer payment instead of leave could lead to legal action being taken against your organisation. Breach of contract and unlawful deduction of pay are amongst the two most common reasons for holiday related tribunal cases.

What are our rights as employees?

We have the right to take annual leave. Everyone employed by the organisation is entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid leave, although the number of days that equates to will depend on how many days we usually work. 

We have the right to sufficient opportunity to take at least 4 weeks of our entitlement during any given leave year. The remaining 1.6 weeks may legally be rolled over, but only into the next leave year.

We have the right to be paid for our annual leave at the time we take it based on the hours we usually work. Regular overtime should be included in holiday pay calculations. Adding holiday pay to our hourly rate instead of paying us when we are on leave is unlawful.

Annual leave cannot legally be replaced by a payment in lieu unless we are leaving our organisation.

We have the right to accrue annual leave if we are away from work under the terms of certain other policies, for example during periods of sickness absence, parental leave or sabbaticals. 

We have the right to rest and use our leave for leisure and cannot be forced to take sick leave as holiday (although we can choose to do so if we wish).
We have the right to sufficient opportunity to take our leave.

What rights does our organisation have as employers?

As long as we are meeting the minimum legal entitlement to leave, we have the right to decide to offer more leave and how we will manage that additional entitlement.

We have the right to decide when people should take some of their leave e.g. on bank holidays or at Christmas. We can decide this collectively to meet our needs as individuals and the needs of the organisation.

We have the right to limit leave e.g. during busy periods if we need to. Again, this can be decided collectively to balance the needs of individuals and the business. 

We have the right to turn down leave requests or to cancel leave if business needs require it, but we must give sufficient notice (see 5 below) and enable employees to take the leave on alternative dates. Cancelling leave should really be a last resort!

What’s wrong with standard holiday policies?

Holiday policies are written in the context of the ethos of productivity and the capitalist norms of working time. They use hours as a measure of work, sometimes without consideration of the culture of the workplace and the wellbeing of workers 

The language used around what is supposed to be a really positive entitlement to benefit workers can actually make it all sound a bit confusing  –  statutory and contractual entitlement for example, just mean the minimum amount of paid holiday someone is entitled to by law (statutory entitlement) and any extra paid holiday they may be offered by their organisation in their employment contract (contractual entitlement).

Standard holiday policies can also focus on perfectly legal, but also fairly punitive aspects of taking time off, for example, a use it or lose it approach.

They are written to fit within hierarchical, and often large, organisations that may also have software to deal with holiday requests and their ‘approval’. Their policies often assume line management rather than collective responsibility for taking time off and can be written by organisations in which overworking is seen as a positive attribute or expectation of employees, rather than something we strive to avoid. Their policies are therefore designed to ensure they don’t fall foul of the law rather than to genuinely encourage people to take time off to rest or to support other interests. It’s rare to see a standard policy that reflects collective agreement and shared responsibility around how we manage the times when people are on holiday.  

What can we do differently?

We can see from the above that much of the law is black and white in terms of entitlement to paid holiday and how this is calculated. While it’s important that we are fair and transparent in how we manage our time off, a holiday policy can be much more than just a way in which we meet our legal obligations. 

We can use holiday policies to reflect how we value our co-workers and support them in creating a good work/life balance, encouraging them to pursue other interests and to show how commitment to our organisations doesn’t have to mean working ourselves into the ground. 

We can reflect our organisation’s values in the holiday policies we create and can tailor them to work alongside different ways of working, for example, in the context of self management or the need to fill a rota.

One of the most valuable things we might consider doing in  progressive organisations, is to invite everyone to contribute to the creation of a policy and process that starts by looking at the needs of individuals in relation to time off and how these might be balanced with the function of our organisations. What is possible above and beyond our legal requirements? How can we be creative and fair in any systems and benefits we agree on? 

Understanding how we arrive at an agreement around our holiday benefits and procedures can be instrumental in avoiding conflict further down the line.

While our organisations have to meet minimum legal requirements, we can be as creative and generous as we want with anything that goes above and beyond these. For example:

  • Providing additional paid holiday beyond the 5.6 weeks minimum entitlement – 6 weeks is often achievable and affordable even within very small organisations. Others may be able to consider providing 5.6 weeks of paid leave on top of 8 paid bank holidays. 
  • Using additional paid (or unpaid) leave to encourage or enable us to follow our organisation’s values. For example:
    • Making provision for additional time off to travel overland instead of flying to our holiday destinations or providing an individual allowance that may be drawn on as a contribution to the additional cost of public transport if environmental concerns are an important part of our organisation’s values.
    • Providing additional paid or unpaid time off to participate in events, campaigns or activities that aim to promote social change.
  • Creating a culture and planning structures that are supportive of each other taking time off work rather than dreading the extra work that may fall on us when someone is away!
  • Considering individual needs and how these can be accommodated. For example, while extra leave may be great for some people, others may not want it. What could your organisation offer them instead?
  • Considering whether people can manage their own leave needs (above the minimum legal requirements). Does there need to be a limit on this? How might you manage the impact on others?

How should we approach writing our Holiday Policy?

We’d recommend collectively talking about what’s important to everyone in your organisation in terms of annual leave and why. Then move on to look at whether and how you might be able to accommodate these needs. Practicalities will help you decide how you can move forward. The key areas to look at are:

  • The impact time off has on the person taking leave and their co-workers
    • Will the person taking holiday come back to a bigger workload because no one covers their work when they are away? Will they have to work longer hours before they go away to be able to take time off? This can sometimes put people off taking leave. Can it be mitigated in any way? 
    • Will someone else have to pick up the slack when a co-worker takes leave? How can work flow be managed effectively to avoid placing a minimum burden on other people’s workload when someone is on holiday?
    • Do individual work planning processes actively build in assumptions of holiday time and encourage staff to plan them? 
  • Affordability
    • Can the organisation afford to pay people to take more than their minimum entitlement in annual leave? Will you have to pay someone else to cover their work while they are away?
  • Incorporating time off into working arrangements
    • Is it practical to increase leave entitlement? Will people actually be able to find time to take additional leave around their workloads?
  • Fairness
    • Can you respond to differing needs/preferences around leave (above the minimum entitlement)? How might this work in practice and what could you offer as alternative benefits to those who might not want extra leave? As long as you ensure everyone gets their minimum paid entitlement, it’s really up to you to decide what you offer above and beyond this, but be transparent and apply anything you agree on consistently and fairly.  

Full Guide

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How to write a radical holiday policy