Throughout many workplace cultures, one thing that isn’t given as much attention as it could be is taking full allowance of annual leave.

Employees don’t always take their full allowance of time off, which doesn't do them (or the company) any good. Those of us that see our holiday calendars as a game of Tetris, madly trying to fit all our ambitious plans in a limited time span, might find that ludicrous. But it’s true - only 43% of us took our full holiday allowance during 2018.

We all know rest is important, but we don’t seem to prioritise it as much as we could.

Surely there’s got to be a different way of doing things. Can companies do better to break the stigma of taking time off?

Food for thought

The restaurant industry proves an interesting case study in this area.

Notorious for long hours, unhealthy habits and workplace stress, restaurants certainly don’t have a reputation for fostering a positive work-life balance. (A recent report showed that 8 out of 10 chefs have experienced poor mental health due to workplace stress.)

But some forward-thinking eateries are now leading the way in doing things differently.

Take a walk around Manchester’s emerging foodie district of Ancoats on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll find it buzzing: from Vietnamese to Italian to Portuguese, almost every table is full wherever you look. But do the same 24 hours later and it’s desolate. Closing on Mondays is now a fairly common practice in many cities - and well it should be, for the sake of staff wellbeing.

Wander Restaurant in Stoke Newington took it one step further by deciding to close an extra day each week:

“...we have decided to only open Wed- Sat for dinner. Conventional hospitality wisdom is that you have to maximise your fixed costs, get as many hours out of your staff on salaries etc... but duck that. I want Wander to be a restaurant that not only cares about the sustainability of their produce but the sustainability of its staff. So from now on we will have a four day week."

There’s a host of other restaurants leading the charge against unhealthy hours, too. Some Michelin-starred places are even cutting hours while keeping staff salaries the same. Things are slowly changing for the better.

How to make booking leave more normal

Can changes like this be done in any company?

The answer is yes. Like any cultural change, it does take time for a company to adapt to new attitudes, but it can happen quicker than you think.

Firstly, regular holiday encouragement is going to have a noticeable impact on leave taking. Whether it's through a newsletter, bulletin board update, or directly in one-to-one meetings, a gentle reminder that there's unused leave in someone's bank will likely get them to take action.

It’s worth checking in with employees that aren't using their allowance. If not, why not? Is their workload too high? Or is there a personal issue that needs resolving? This kind of thing is definitely worth talking about, especially if they're reluctant to proactively raise the point otherwise.

You could consider setting a policy like 50% leave must be taken by the end of June. (Or if that’d cause problems, make it a suggestion rather than a mandate.)

You could link it in to other incentives - for example, sales bonuses only being paid out under the condition that a certain amount of leave is taken by a certain date. This can also work to disincentivise sales people from missing out on holidays to hit bonus targets.

(If you’re in a sales-heavy organisation that thinks this would have a negative impact on the bottom line, it’s probably worth thinking about where peak productivity lies. If you’ve got burnt-out employees forcing themselves to constantly overachieve - taking who-knows-what substances to stay awake and power through - imagine what you’d get with healthy, switched-on, motivated workers who take less time off through stress & illness due to their restful habits.)

It goes hand in hand with fostering a sensible working culture. If all the managers are staying til 6, 7, 8pm each night, it sets the tone for everyone else’s behaviour. If they see staying late and overworking as admirable behaviour, they’ll copy it - even if it’s actually detrimental to productivity, as meaningful work isn’t really getting done that late.

So whether you've got a regular 28-day holiday allowance, or an adventurous and modern unlimited leave allowance, it's important to make sure employees are taking their time off properly. Having everyone stuck in the office exhausted, staring at screens while not really doing much, is far too common in competitive workaholic-style organisations.

As always, we think the best thing for any company, big or small, is for everyone to take their rightful time off. Put your feet up, and good things will happen.