Can managers contact employees on annual leave or is this always bad management practice?

Imagine the scene: a sun lounger by the pool, skiing down a mountainside, fine dining in cities of culture — all interrupted by the incessant ringing of your company mobile phone.

The use of technology and the ability to contact people regardless of where they are in the world is increasingly causing the lines between work life and holiday to blur. But, is there a right to contact employees who are off work on annual leave or should this be something managers never do?

The law

Under the Working Time Regulations 1996, all UK workers have a statutory entitlement to take 5.6 paid working weeks of annual leave in each leave year. The total amount of days this equates to depends on how many days or hours the individual works for, subject to a maximum of 28 days. The statutory entitlement may or may not be inclusive of the UK bank holidays, with eight public holidays in England and Wales and nine in Scotland each year.

Although there is no specific statutory provision setting out what this leave should be used for, with employees free to choose how they spend such leave, there are a number of European case law decisions which have highlighted that the purpose of annual leave is for the rest and relaxation of the worker. One example is the case of Pereda v Madrid Molividad SA [2009] where the CJEU ruled that annual leave should be rearranged where the employee became ill prior to his holiday leave. This was because annual leave and sick leave cannot run concurrently as the purpose of the leave is different; annual leave is for rest and relaxation, while sick leave is to recover from illness.

Legal changes have appeared in some European countries due to the shifting culture of the working day and the ability to complete work away from the normal workplace. The best example is in France where legislation came into force in January 2017 which provides a legal “right to disconnect” from answering work emails outside of the employee’s normal working hours.

The leavism culture

In recognition of the increasingly common practice of workers carrying out work during holidays, the concept of “leavism” is becoming more accepted. Leavism is the word used to describe the practice of individuals carrying out work during scheduled time off, such as holiday leave. While the practice can occur due to a need to show commitment towards an organisation, it is often used to stay on top of workloads or answer email communications received during this time off.

In May 2018, the CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work survey found that 69% of respondents reported observing leavism within the previous 12 months. It is perhaps becoming increasingly common to take a laptop bag and company mobile phone, in addition to a holiday suitcase to ensure the right equipment is on hand — just in case.

Why shouldn’t you contact staff?

Holiday is often a treasured time for workers, whether they have elaborate plans or are deciding to stay closer to home. As the sole aim of holiday leave is to provide time for workers to rest and relax, contacting them while they are off work is likely to hinder the very aim of this leave — how can they relax if they are being contacted for work purposes?

Persistent contacting of employees while they are on annual leave could create a harmful culture. It may lead to employees deciding not to book annual leave and to remain in work rather than have their plans interrupted; creating a risk that their rights under the Working Time Regulations will not be met. The organisation is also indicating a culture whereby the needs and personal commitments of employees are seen as less important than their work commitments, potentially leading to employees considering leaving in order to join a business with a better work life balance. Additionally, placing employees under work pressure and stress, even during their leave periods, can lead to burnout or mental health issues.

When should you contact employees on holiday?

Unfortunately, in some cases, managers may feel that they have no other choice than to contact employees on holiday and this will depend on the circumstances of the case. It may be necessary, and reasonable, where the employee is the only individual in possession of a password or has sole responsibility for a particular project where a question needs answering. These types of quick questions can be handled in a few minutes via a telephone call, usually with an apology for interrupting their leave at the start.

In anything other than these types of necessary and short issues it is unlikely to be reasonable to contact your employees unless there is no other option. You shouldn’t ask employees to be completing whole tasks or conducting pre-arranged meetings while they are on holiday, instead this is a matter that their manager should have taken care of by either ensuring these tasks were completed in advance, duties were handed over appropriately, and meetings where the individual’s attendance is key have been rearranged.

The case for contacting employees may be different when they are senior staff or leaders who are responsible for making business-critical decisions. If this is the case, make it clear in their contract or applicable holiday policy that they may be contacted during leave and whether there is a requirement on them to remain available. Clearly setting out your expectations in advance can help to avoid later issues.

What can employers do in these circumstances?

It is key that before any periods of holiday, however short, managers touch base with their employees and ensure tasks are either completed or a handover is put in place. Sufficient time needs to be spent on the handover so that there are no gaps or questions which may arise in their absence, and the employee who will be handling any tasks is fully trained to carry these out.

If you are aware that an issue may crop up which will need contact from the employee, for example you know that a newly-completed project is being reviewed during their leave, then you should speak to the employee. Make it clear that you will try every other avenue before contacting them but you may have to do this if it is necessary. Agree how this contact will take place so that there are no issues about unavailability, and set in place arrangements for how they will receive any lost holiday time back.

When an issue arises which would normally have you reaching for the phone to contact the worker who is on holiday, take a step back and consider what other options there are. Unbeknown to you, there may be an individual within their team or a colleague who can answer the question or direct you to the information you need. Also, consider how urgent the particular matter is. If it can wait until a more suitable time, then try to leave it until it needs to be resolved — although make sure that this doesn’t place additional pressure on the absent employee to receive the request and reply within an unreasonable deadline.

At the end of the day, saying sorry, restricting the number of occasions this takes place and providing the employee with additional time in lieu will balance out the negatives of contacting employees who are on holiday. But action may need to be taken where this is a common occurrence that is leading to extra stress and pressure on those who wish to take leave.