Balancing annual leave and client/patient service levels

Balancing annual leave and client/patient service levels

There is always something exciting about preparing for a holiday. I spend months looking forward to and anticipating the relaxing time away from the stresses of life and work. I think about the fun things I will do, the warm weather and the rest. I imagine myself sipping cocktails in the sun, which I feel will aid in dissolving my stresses.

With the terrible last couple of years that we have all had, the lack of breaks away, and the ever-increasing pressures of veterinary practices, now is the time staff should have, and need a break, but, running a practice or department on a reduced number of people, in an already pressured staffing crisis is hard. Are you ready?

With everyone so busy and many practices short-staffed, annual leave requests can sneak up on you, leaving owners and managers unprepared. The way to survive this without gaps in staffing is with pre-emptive planning. You can predict and know the busy months/time. Good and ‘known to the practice’ locums, often need long notice requests. Whether you use locums or not, I would encourage staff to book their annual leave as early as possible.

Make a formal annual leave policy

A formal policy is necessary to ensure fairness, preparedness of cover and to set minimum staffing levels to ensure patient health/welfare and client service levels. Suggestions of what to include in a policy are below

  • How do staff members need to submit a request?
  • How long in advance?
  • How/who will process the request and when the team member will be informed of the outcome?
  • How will a decision be decided, i.e., first come first serve, or on a rotation, for instance, the same person can’t keep having first dibs on the same time off each year- Christmas?
  • How much time can be allowed at any one time?
  • How many staff of each area/department can be off at any one time?
  • What happens if annual leave is not used up?

 

Other suggestions 

Guidance on spreading annual leave evenly through the year.  I have introduced in the past a quarter of allowance to be used in each quarter of the year, but this could also be half a year or a third. This ensures an even spread and prevents the end of the annual leave calendar rush.

You could introduce reduced or no annual leave to be allowed at certain busy times a year, i.e., in-between Christmas and new year, this can help prevent gaps in service levels.

Keep things simple

If you manage a large team, keeping track of annual leave requests can be challenging, but certain software and apps can assist with requests, tracking, and informing the team members of decisions. This software doesn’t have to be expensive, and you could also use a spreadsheet.

If using paper forms and a calendar, remember to keep records of amounts taken / booked / allowances as this can easily become confusing as changes occur.

Ensuring cover

Cover can be gained in several ways. It’s important to work out the amount you need to cover. You can budget for annual leave, CPD, and potentially an average sickness cover. You can then fund the extra staffing.

Locums are commonly more expensive per hour and through no fault of their own, less productive than contracted staff, so a clever idea is to offer extra hours and associated pay to existing staff as an alternative. This has the positive of increasing end take-home pay for staff, in a time of increased outgoings. The downside is that it could tire your already hard-working team.

Another option is to have a list or pool of staff that can step in and cover, for instance, employees who’ve left to have children but want to keep their hand in, interns/residents at local referral centres on their time off. This pool of talent can fill in when needed, already know your team and the practice, and are often less expensive than locums.

The other option is to work out the total amount you need to cover for and increase your staffing to consider that, this does mean you need to keep tight control over the amount of any one type of staff off at a time, to ensure coverage and capacity. On days when the extra cover is not needed, it can be great to have the extra hands, but the downside is staff will miss the extra people when they are covering someone off.

A proper break

There is nothing worse, when your holiday is about to finish, than fearing the overwhelming amount of work you have to catch up on. Try and help your employees by respecting their time off. Try not to collect work for when they return. For instance, instead of including that person in lots of emails, write an overview of what has happened during their time off, so they can catch up quickly without trudging through hundreds of emails and messages.

One option is to have a clear out-of-office reply with clear instructions on who to contact. One person I know is braver than me and applies an ‘I am out of the office. On my return, any emails will be immediately deleted so if you still need me after I return, please contact me then’. I completely appreciate this approach as sometimes, I wonder what is the point of taking annual leave if I still have the same amount of work, just condensed, before and after my break.

Whatever your approach, make sure staff have a proper break away and protect them from work-related calls, texts, messages, and emails during their annual leave. This same protection is important when the person is on a staycation. Employees need their annual leave to recover, recharge and relax, to come back refreshed and energized.

And. Don’t forget yourself. It is important to apply your annual leave to the whole mix. You need a well-earned break just as much as everyone else!

Belinda Andrews-Jones

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