· 2 min read · Features

How holidays impact on engagement and wellbeing


Despite today’s global business landscape, some nations still have it far better than others when it comes to state-sponsored leisure time.

The Austrians get the best deal, with an impressive 13 public holidays in addition to 22 days annual leave. This provides a stark contrast to the situation in the US, where there is no legal obligation for employers to provide paid holiday. As a consequence, one in four have no paid holiday at all.

While set holidays have existed for centuries, over the past decade we’ve seen flexible working become an increasingly popular policy in the corporate world. The kudos once attached to presenteeism is now dissolving as employers recognise that it’s not so much about when or where work is done, but what work is done.

Taking this flexibility one step further, a number of companies, including large multi-nationals Virgin and Netflix, have recently announced unlimited holiday policies. These encourage employees to take as much holiday as they feel they need, with the onus being on them to draw the line when this impacts negatively on their work. While this may present a dream scenario for some, there is strong evidence that many people struggle to take the time off that they’re entitled to – let alone the amount they’d like.

According to Expedia’s latest annual Vacation Deprivation study, Americans only use 10 out of an average 14 days annual leave entitlement – that’s a jaw-dropping 577,212,000 days left untaken. And if you think that’s bad, the situation is even worse for those in Japan and Korea. They take only seven out of 18, and seven out of 10 vacation days respectively. 

While Europeans get a far better deal, for many annual holiday is all too often just an ‘office away from the office’. A study from jobs website Glassdoor shows that the average UK employee uses only 77% of their annual leave and almost half say they undertake some work while on holiday.

Clearly there are a variety of factors at play in holiday-taking behaviour. National and corporate cultures play a big part, as do our individual circumstances. However, what Hay Group’s research makes undeniably clear is that companies with a positive work/life balance culture see fewer employees looking to leave than those that don’t (only 17% from the former are considering leaving in the next two years compared to 27% from the latter). 

This shows us that wherever they are in the world, employers looking to retain staff should place a concerted focus on work/life balance. With this meaning different things to different people, it requires an increased focus on treating people as individuals.

We see individualisation as a key business trend, with huge influence on employees’ loyalty and motivation to perform. To succeed, employers will need to recognise that ‘soft factors’ such as recognition, self-development and work/life balance, are often just as, if not more important than traditional factors like pay and promotion. What’s more, a new breed of leader will be needed to engage diverse and highly individualised teams. The key will be to provide autonomy within a clear set of boundaries, to foster the conditions for people to perform.

Simple tips for fostering wellbeing in the work place:

  • Assess whether your current reward strategy offers employees enough choice and flexibility
  • Support flexible working patterns, to enable people with varying obligations and commitments to remain in work
  • Introduce health and wellbeing policies into the workplace that empower employees to live a healthier lifestyle
  • Encourage (and support) people to take their full holiday entitlement without checking their emails. It’s vital that leaders and managers set an example here
  • Conduct regular employee surveys and pulse checks to uncover stress, morale and workload issues 

Ben Hubbard is European head of engagement at Hay Group