What can be done when employees don’t take vacations?

One aspect of every discussion on work-life balance, alpha personalities or workaholics is the question of employees who refuse to take vacation time away from work. After all, this is no academic question. Stats Canada reports that over 9% of employees, entitled to annual vacations, don’t take them1.

There are probably a couple of reasons why employees may be reluctant to go on vacation. They may not feel they can afford it. An employee may have worked less than normal during a vacation entitlement year, so taking vacation time would mean a drop in earnings. Some employees may also be reluctant to take vacations, if they are a little too closely identified with their jobs, feel they are simply irreplaceable or are afraid to give up some of their control.

Every employment standards jurisdiction in Canada requires employers to provide employees with annual vacations. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some employees are exempt from employment standards requirements. As well, vacation time is only required for employees who complete what are termed vacation entitlement years or stub periods.

But for employees who qualify, what is the employer actually required to do in order to meet this requirement? Specifically, what can or must the employer do, when employees are reluctant to take time off work?

Before answering this, we have to clarify slightly the requirement stated above. In some jurisdictions, the requirement is not to provide or grant employees vacation time, it’s to permit them to take annual vacations. Although these might seem similar, the difference is in the emphasis. Where the employer is required to provide vacation time, the onus is on the employer to ensure this happens. Where employers are only required to permit employees to take vacations, this onus is shifted somewhat. Permitting an employee to take vacation time means the employer must not put up any obstacles. Think of it this way. When employers must provide vacation time, they must take active steps to ensure employees are given this time. When employers must permit employee vacations, they can’t take any active steps that interfere with these.

“Permit”, rather than “provide”, applies in two jurisdictions; Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. In these two jurisdictions, the only positive action that employers must take, apart from paying any related vacation pay, is to ensure employee vacations are scheduled. In both jurisdictions, the employer is primarily responsible for this scheduling.

There are also some jurisdictions where employees may be permitted to delay or waive vacation time. This is described in another of my articles, when employees must take the vacation time they’ve earned.

Other than the two situations above, what are employers to do when employees won’t take the employment standards minimum vacation time that must be provided?

In practical terms, there is probably very little that employers can do, when employees resist taking vacation time. I suppose at the most extreme, when employees refuse to stay away when they are supposed to be on vacation, the employer could deny physical or Internet access to the workplace. For example, if access is controlled by a security system, employers could consider suspending such access rights during scheduled vacations.

The only practical step an employer might take is to make a refusal of the minimum required vacation time a disciplinary matter. For example, employees could be given a negative performance appraisal, denied promotion or suspended without pay, if they refuse to take minimum vacation time. Although, at the extreme, employees could be dismissed for cause, for interfering with the employer’s obligation to provide vacation time, it’s hard to believe this situation could get that far out of hand.

It’s also a fair question to ask, why employers should be concerned with whether or not employees take vacation time. There are really two answers. First, everyone needs to recharge their batteries periodically and, ultimately, employee performance may suffer if, from time to time, there isn’t a proper break from work. Second, a refusal to take vacations may indicate other problems, either in the workplace or at home. Such problems could stem from negative employee attitudes, such as an excessive believe in one’s own importance, to issues of turf or control, that may be impacting other employees. A refusal to stay away from work may also reflect difficulties in an employee’s home life, that might affect job performance. At it’s most extreme, reluctance to be away may also be an indication of more serious issues. Employees who are engaged in fraud may always need to be on site to cover up their activities. They might also not want any time away from work to be associated with changes in patterns that might be indicators of employee fraud.

Alan McEwen is a Vancouver Island-based HRIS/Payroll consultant and freelance writer with over 25 years’ experience in all aspects of the payroll industry. He can be reached at armcewen@shaw.ca or (250) 228-5280. If you like these articles, please consider buying one of my Need to Know resources. Signup to my email list to be notified as new resources are added, including webinars and seminars.

1. Statistics Canada, Workplace and Employee Survey Compendium, Table 3.6, catalogue number 71-585-XWE.

About Alan R. McEwen

HRIS/Payroll consultant and freelance writer
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