Union members debate changes to NHS annual leave dates

The decision was made after union members were concerned that changing the leave date period, could detract from the fact that staff are ”struggling” to take time off because of poor staffing levels.

“By moving our leave dates, we don’t remove the problem, we quite simply hide it” 

Reema Waltham

Healthcare professionals, who came together at Unison’s annual health conference on Tuesday, debated a composite motion which put forward a trial to change when staffs’ annual leave begins.

The composite was made up of two motions: motion seven called “NHS staff annual leave” and motion eight titled “Change annual leave dates”.

With several members on each side of the debate, delegates heard from those for the motion who were campaigning for a study to test whether having a members’ start date as the date that annual leave begins, would “get rid of the funnel” of people taking leave at the same time.

Those on the opposing side, however, felt that changing the dates could detract from the wider issues of poor staffing and retention.

Reema Waltham, who represented the East Midlands Region, told union members: “I have worked in an organisation that has tried this a number of years ago, and it lasted just over a year before we reverted back.”

She explained that having intakes of various sized cohorts typically occurring at the same time of the year, “inevitably” meant that each new cohort would create a “bottleneck” of staff taking leave throughout the year.

She said: “By leaving the leave year April to March, the problem is more visible.”

While urging members to “be more visible”, she asked the room to avoid “detracting from poor staffing” and oppose the composite.

“By moving our leave dates, we don’t remove the problem, we quite simply hide it,” she said.

“Changing the leave date will not solve the real problem which is about staff being bullied into not taking their leave when they want to take it” 

Francis Little

However, Sam Kimberley from the University Hospitals Birmingham branch, who lead the composite of motions, highlighted the “mad rush” for all staff to get their annual leave in by March.

“This is having an impact on services, it’s having an impact on our members,” she said.

Drawing together points and arguments from the two motions, the composite called for a feasibility study to test the date changes, and for the outputs from the pilot to be discussed and presented to the health conference in 2020 for decision.

In her movement speech, Ms Kimberley acknowledged that all healthcare professionals need time away from work but noted that “every March there are difficulties”.

She said that implementing the trial would hopefully “get rid of the funnel at the end of the year”.

Also speaking for the change, Lilian Macer, Scotland Region branch, explained to delegates that having a study could help to highlight some of the existing issues around recruitment, retention and staffing levels.

She said: “An informed evaluation will give information and evidence to campaign for our members.”

“Have the study, come back next year and have the debate,” she urged.

Francis Little, North Derbyshire Health Care branch, spoke next and was against the change.

In her speech she said: “Conference, changing the leave date will not solve the real problem which is about staff being bullied into not taking their leave when they want to take it, or managers being under pressure to cancel and refuse leave requests when services are under strain.”

Several more members took to the stand before union members decided they had heard enough and wanted to take it to a vote before all speakers had finished.

Though there were delegates who voted for the change, many more voted against and so the composite was lost.

Composite B ‘Annual leave dates linked to starting date’ called for:

1) Carry out a feasibility study to see if leave can be linked to members’ starting date or another period of the year that would alleviate the pressure created in the current system of running a universal annual leave year of April to March for all NHS staff.

2) To consider leave linked to start dates for new starters, seek both a willing employer and brach to undertake the process, the Health Service Group Executive should organise a pilot/test of change to consider the pros and cons of any such change to leave dates.

3) The outputs from the pilot should be fully discussed by the Health Service Group Executive and presented to Health Conference 2020 for decision.