Taking time off not always easy

Most employees use all or most of their vacation time but fatigue is still a factor – and many employers lack reliable, current data on leave usage: Survey
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/21/2015

Employers are fairly generous when it comes to providing vacation time but time off, while helpful, isn’t enough to completely stamp out employee fatigue.

Those were two key findings of Time Off in Canadian Workplaces, a Canadian HR Reporter survey of 395 HR professionals from across Canada completed in partnership with WorkForce Software, based in Livonia, Mich. Respondents represented a mix of private, public and not-for-profit sectors and union and non-union environments. 

The vast majority of respondents (93.6 per cent) said their organization provides more vacation time than the minimum required by law — 64.1 per cent provide more than the minimum to all employees and 29.5 per cent provide more than the minimum to some employees. 

Vacation over money

Providing more than the bare minimum is a smart business decision, said Liz Scott, principal and CEO of Organizational Solutions in Burlington, Ont. 

“Vacation is one of the areas where we can all have a little negotiation room, whereas (with) salary you can’t. The current economic climate in Canada really limits your ability to do much from a salary perspective and still be competitive in the marketplace. Whereas vacation… it’s something you can provide to employees where you’re not able to provide monetary increases,” she said. 

It’s a good productivity and recruitment strategy as well, said Jo-Anne Morefield, director of human resources at People’s Trust in Vancouver.

“Leave and work-life balance, being able to have that time off to spend with your family, to get away… has become far more important than it used to be. And as a retention and recruitment strategy, I think it’s really essential, particularly in this day and age where we seem to be constantly asking people to do more with less,” she said. 

It can also be a make-or-break factor in terms of recruitment, said Fatima Mirza, director of human resources and technology services at the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo in Fort McMurray, Alta. While the legal minimums may be a good starting point, you need to adjust according to the industry and market you are in, she said. 

“What are the industry and the market forces that are driving that change?” 

Nearly all employers offer two to three weeks to new employees; 58.5 per cent of respondents said their organization offers two weeks of vacation to start; 39.8 per cent offer three weeks to start. 

New hires asking for more 

But new hires are increasingly asking for more vacation time upfront, said Barbara Adams, director of human resources at Vanderpol Food Group and managing director at HR Architects in Fort Langley, B.C. 

“People are asking for additional time off. I find that demand by new employees is now higher, so where we used to start at two weeks, the majority of employees now want three weeks off. They don’t really care if it goes to six (weeks) — they want that three weeks right off the start, and that’s a cost,” she said. 

What determines vacation allotment?

For 90.9 per cent of respondents, length of service was the main factor influencing the amount of paid vacation time available to employees, followed by position at the organization (47.4 per cent) and collective bargaining agreement rules (31.9 per cent).  

Most organizations represented in the survey had relatively moderate limits on vacation time; for 82.4 per cent, vacation time maxes out at six weeks or less, while 17.7 per cent offer seven weeks or more. The majority (63.9 per cent) offer five or six weeks as the vacation maximum. 

It’s important to have reasonable limits in place to maintain operational efficiency and productivity, said Scott. 

“Even employers that offer six weeks, we don’t offer six consecutive weeks because it would be really difficult to go without that person for six consecutive weeks,” she said. 

Five or six weeks is often the upper limit for a reason, said Morefield. 

“If people have too much time… they’re stressing about ‘How am I ever going to use all this time and still get my job done?’ So I think there does need to be a balance,” she said. 

Five or six weeks looks pretty meagre when one compares it to vacation allowances in Europe, said Adams. But once people earn enough weeks of vacation, they often have difficulty fitting them all in. 

“We may offer more than what’s legally required but we really aren’t offering people the opportunity to take that vacation,” she said. “Quite often, I see that there are unused vacation days because organizations are pushing people to stay working. But then we’re also seeing… such an increase in the stress levels.”

In terms of usage, 85.6 per cent of respondents reported all or most employees use all of their allotted vacation time; however, 63.6 per cent still feel employee fatigue is a major (10.5 per cent) or moderate (53.1 per cent) issue in the organization. 

That fatigue can be due to many different factors, said Scott. 

“Because so many people are attached now to work with their BlackBerries and with the constant Internet barrage, and then they go home and go on the Internet… you never really unplug,” she said. “Some of the fatigue is coming from (that).”

Employee stress levels are increasing but it’s more than just workloads, said Adams. 

“It’s not just fatigue due to what they’re experiencing at work but it’s fatigue due to what they’re experiencing in their personal lives,” she said, adding that people should go beyond just examining time off and also look at their Employee Family Assistance Program (EFAPs) offerings. 

“Fatigue is not caused by just (needing) time off, it’s caused by what people are experiencing in their family life… and we have to provide more support for that,” she said. 

Family and personal lives have become more complex and more challenging, said Mirza. 

“And just vacation or time off cannot be the only panacea to that problem… there are other pieces to it.”

Leaves of absence

Only 56.2 per cent of respondents said their organization has reliable and current data on leave usage — and with a number of newly introduced leaves, there is a great deal of complexity, said Scott.

“In Canada now there are so many leaves that employers are confused.” 

Top challenges in regards to handling leaves of absence included filling the role during the employee’s absence (76.9 per cent), planning the employee’s return to work (46.4 per cent) and case management (44.7 per cent). 

The most common responses to a leave include asking existing team members to work more (52.9 per cent) or bringing in contract or temporary workers (40 per cent). Only 7.1 per cent said reducing, declining or postponing work is a common occurrence. 

Managing both cost control and employee burnout is a delicate balancing act, said Scott. 

“(And) it’s going to be a real balancing act to make sure that you’ve got an adequate number of trained staff to potentially accommodate for leaves that have now been (added) under the Employment Standards Act,” she said. 

When someone is on leave, balancing operational and employee needs is all about communication, said Morefield.  

“We work with the department that’s affected and say, ‘Are you guys OK, do you need extra assistance, do we need to get a temp in? Is there another department that can assist you? How do we help you work through this process?’” she said. 

“Part of it is you have to rely on your managers to be honest... if people are ending up working a lot of overtime, people are burning out, they’re not able to take any time — if it’s just not working, then our expectation is they need to come and talk to us.”

Thoughts on managing time off
We asked respondents if they had any additional thoughts or comments after completing the survey. Here are some of the responses:

•“Most of (our) leaves are bereavement leaves which are easily managed through software (a timesheet program). Really it is only STD/LTD leaves which are increasingly complicated to case manage.”

• “Feelings of entitlement from some employees to take various leaves with questionable rationales can reduce morale among other employees.”

• “We also have a vacation purchase program where employees who have four weeks or less of vacation entitlement can purchase an additional five days of vacation.”

• “Our company shuts down from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2. All full-time workers receive paid time off for this, not included in the vacation policy.”

• “We started to enforce employees using vacation as some were carrying too long, then they would take a lot at once, get behind and want to work overtime to ‘catch up,’ accumulating more leave.”

• “We are not able to pay as well as comparable employers so we attempt to offset through generous leave benefits.”

• “Employees using all their sick leave still want their paid vacation and other holidays. (That) makes it hard to get the work done and other staff resent filling in constantly.”

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