With Britain basking in a heatwave and peak holiday season just around the corner, research published this week by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) couldn’t be more timely. Its poll of more than 1,000 UK workers shows that rather than relishing the arrival of the summer season, nearly three-quarters of workers actually find the lead-up to their holidays highly stressful – with some even admitting to returning to work more stressed than they left.

Concern about falling behind with workload – or returning to work to find an overflowing in-box – is behind much of this annual leave ‘angst’. But the ‘always on’ culture now prevalent across business, thanks to the growth in use of smart phones and tablets, clearly also has a lot to answer for.

More than half of workers said they felt obliged to work while on holiday, with 64% reading or sending emails and 28% taking business calls during their time off. What’s interesting is that working when you’re meant to be relaxing by the pool or chilling in the garden seems to have become widely acceptable. Only 28% of those surveyed reported having arguments with friends and family about ‘illicit’ working while away. That’s down from 37% two years previously, suggesting that sneaking off to make phone calls or anxiously checking email before you head out for dinner has pretty much become the norm.

It’s a worrying trend – and one that poses an interesting challenge for organisations. Most employers would accept that if people take proper breaks they come back refreshed, motivated, and ready to approach their work with renewed vigour. But there’s often an element of human nature at play here. Yes, managers know their people should be unwinding and recharging – but if deadlines are looming and there are targets to be met, it’s very tempting to turn a blind eye (and indeed even be grateful) if your people appear willing to remain switched on and in touch. And short of physically separating people from their smartphone as they leave the building, there isn’t much you can actually do to stop an employee who, for whatever reason, isn’t willing to relax and let go.

So how can employers strike the right balance between encouraging people to make the most of their annual leave while also ensuring the needs of the business are met?

Encourage managers to walk the talk

If the business is keen to encourage staff to take a real break when they are on annual leave, an example needs to be set from the top. If employees see their manager sending emails from the beach in Barbados, they will feel under pressure to do the same when they’re away. If you want to introduce a ‘take a real break’ policy, make sure it has the endorsement of the CEO and that managers across the business have a clear brief to actively discourage people from working when they’re meant to be away.

Plan ahead for absence

Much of the stress that occurs, both pre and post-holiday, could be eliminated with some careful forward planning and an absence management software. Encourage individuals to start preparing for their holiday well-ahead, putting together hand over notes and briefing colleagues on work that will need to be dealt with while they are away. Make sure they put a clear out of office message on email and voicemail, so that clients and contacts know when they’ll be back and who to get in touch with in their absence. This will cut down on the number of messages left and queries waiting when the individual returns – it’s surprising how many people manage to sort out problems themselves if they can’t get hold of the person they need! Organise a face-to-face briefing for when the individual returns, to bring them quickly up to speed on key issues before they become immersed in an inbox overflowing with confusing email trails.

Talk to people

If you are aware that someone is showing signs of stress in the lead-up to their holiday or will find it difficult to disengage while they are away, sit them down for an informal chat. Are they concerned because they don’t feel colleagues have the knowledge to cover their job and may make mistakes? Or are they struggling with a heavy workload and are worried they will come back to a mountain of work which will take weeks to catch up with? If you can get to the root of the problem, there is usually something you can do to help – providing some extra training or coaching for other team members, for example, or managing a client’s expectations about what they can expect and who they should deal with when their key contact is away.

Have a clear policy

Use your annual leave policy to reinforce messages about what is and isn’t expected when it comes to people managing their annual leave. Make sure everyone is clear about the procedure for requesting holidays and whether there are any restrictions, for example around how many people can be off in a team at any one time or if there is a ‘use it or lose it’ policy. (More than half those questioned in the ILM survey admitted to not taking their full quota and having annual leave left over at the end of the year). You might want to make it explicit in your policy that the business believes taking a proper break is important, actively encourages everyone to take the full amount of holiday due and that employees are not expected to work while on annual leave. The latest HR software systems can make the whole task of tracking absence so much simpler. A few clicks of the mouse on the people management software and managers will be able to get a complete overview of who’s off when in their team, so they can plan ahead for cover if needed and make sure there are enough resources at peak times or when a major project is due for completion. Individuals can also log in and keep tabs on how much annual leave they have left, making it easier to ensure they use up their entitlement in time.

Be flexible

Of course encouraging people to take planned holidays isn’t the only challenge employers face, particularly at this time of year. Levels of unplanned, short-term absence often shoot up during the summer months when there are numerous distractions. When it’s the hottest day of the year, it’s very tempting for people to throw a sickie so they can keep cool in the garden and avoid a horrendous commute. If Andy Murray is in a critical match in the latter stages of Wimbledon, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a few empty chairs at work. As an employer, you need to be both realistic and flexible if you want to minimise the disruption caused by last-minute no-shows. If it’s a boiling hot day and the air conditioning isn’t working effectively, why not consider flexing working hours so people can travel outside of peak times or allow people to work from home. Use a major sporting event as an opportunity to build camaraderie and team spirit by bringing a TV into the office or allowing people to have the game on in the background on their screens. The more flexible and understanding you are, the less likely it is that people will cause disruption by taking time off at short notice.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but actively encouraging staff take to take proper breaks and adopting a more flexible approach to time off, can leader to greater engagement and productivity. If staff can see their employer wants them to have a healthy work-life balance, it will build loyalty, lower stress levels and lead to happier workforce all round.

One action to take this week: How many of your employees are working when they are supposed to be on holiday? Take a straw poll to find out or include a question in your next employee survey.

You may be interested in reading: To holiday… or not to holiday?

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.