Summer Slowdown

Vacation time and understaffed offices can make August a tricky month.

In offices across the country, government or otherwise, August can bring an eerie sound-silence. With the end of summer in sight and students just weeks away from starting the new school year, many workers choose August to cash in hard-earned vacation time. For federal managers, this rush of leave requests can create a number of challenges.

It is important to have a good grasp of the Office of Personnel Management's leave policies and to ensure your employees understand them as well. Employees have a right to take their accrued annual leave, but it is a supervisor's right to decide when that leave can be taken. And while the summer Friday "sick day" might be a running sitcom joke, an agency can grant sick leave only when the excuse is supported by acceptable evidence. An employee's self-certification as to the reason for his or her absence can qualify, but a manager can also require a medical certificate or other administrative evidence.

Once everyone has a solid understanding of the rules of the road, managers can determine whether and when to approve vacation requests.

That begins with parsing out a complete picture of the anticipated workload for the upcoming months by talking to other supervisors and project and program managers. Create a calendar laying out deadlines, likely periods of increased workload and other important dates that might affect leave requests. Then you can determine whether allowing leave would interfere with deadlines.

If you decide not to grant a request, be clear about the reason and provide date ranges when it would be more likely that leave could be approved. It might help morale to assure the employee that you considered all other options before denying the request, and that you are happy to consider alternative dates that would not conflict with high-priority projects.

If you grant the request, begin communicating immediately with the staffers who will be filling in about what responsibilities they will be taking on and how they can work with the employee in advance to minimize lost time and productivity during the leave period.

Before employees head out for vacation, be sure they change voicemail and email greetings to indicate they are out of the office. This makes callers aware that the office is still responsive and that someone else is acting on the absent employee's behalf. All out-of-office messages should contain clear and complete information on who can handle urgent issues while the employee is out.

It is easy to forget why employees are not only permitted but even encouraged to take leave. Vacation eases stress, offers health benefits and increases productivity. A 2007 Businessweek article titled "Do Us a Favor, Take a Vacation" chronicled the perils of overworked employees.

The article cited a Families and Work Institute study, in which workers identified vacation deprivation as a key driver of increased anger, resentment and mistakes on the job.

More employees are taking two or three days off at a time instead of cashing in accrued leave in bulk, but this approach is less effective at reducing stress. The study found that workers who take at least a week off experience an 82 percent increase in job performance after a trip.

Managers should capitalize on this restorative state. While returning from leave can be a tough transition for employees, it is a good time to work with them on big-picture brainstorming or offer up a new challenge.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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