How to negotiate leave during the pandemic

Be honest about your needs, but remain flexible and open to creative solutions.
How to negotiate leave during the pandemic

With experts warning of a rising tide of mental health challenges in the wake of COVID-19, finance professionals have to pay close attention to both their physical and emotional wellbeing.

For many, the shift to remote working has contributed to higher levels of stress and fatigue, as the boundaries between work and home life have all but vanished. Taking time off from work is a necessary part of balancing one’s wellbeing, but negotiating that time off can now be quite tricky.

For finance professionals who feel they need time off to rest and avoid burnout, requesting leave during times of economic hardship or volatility can be daunting. The spectre of retrenchment is looming large in many sectors, along with significant salary cuts, and it can be frightening to ask for time off in such a precarious time.

On the other hand, finance professionals who have limited travel options due to lockdowns or economic restraints may be unwilling to take their paid leave days for fear of wasting them just to stay at home, which can be problematic for companies in different ways.

Whether finance professionals are considering taking leave or are hoping to avoid taking leave, it is critical to prioritise one’s individual wellbeing — and to consider the immediate impact on both colleagues and family members.

However, this dilemma also presents a delicate balancing act for HR leaders and finance teams.

“Many professionals who have been furloughed or working remotely feel they have seen enough of the inside of their homes and would prefer to save their leave days for a time when they can travel without restrictions or potential quarantine periods,” said Marvin Opperman, people director at Sage Africa & Middle East, an enterprise software company.

“Companies should nonetheless encourage them to take time out to refresh and recharge — and it’s also reasonable that businesses will not want to have all their employees storing up leave days to use in the latter part of the year,” he added.

We spoke to Opperman and Kirstin Liss, an industrial and organisational psychologist based in South Africa, to find out how finance professionals can negotiate either using or saving their leave time by taking a more flexible and creative approach.

Define your needs. Before approaching HR or your manager to request leave, take some time to gain insight into your current physical and mental state — and in doing so, identify any factors that may be leading to feelings of burnout, fatigue, or stress.

“If you are not coping and need time out, then the first step is to understand why,” explained Liss. “For example, if you feel the workload is too much, then taking leave will not address the issue — you will simply walk back into the same chaos or situation of overwork when you return.”

Once you have identified the factors contributing to fatigue or ill health, the next step is to think about the resources that could alleviate these challenges. So, in addition to allowing you leave to rejuvenate, can the company provide additional resources, such as new technology tools, mentorship, or training? Or do you simply need more flexible working hours because of caring responsibilities at home?

“By approaching HR with strong insight into your wellbeing and workplace needs, the conversation around taking leave will become far more constructive and will help both parties to find solutions that address any potential underlying issues,” Liss said. “The goal should be to achieve transparency and mutual understanding.”

Demonstrate flexibility. With many finance and leadership teams scrambling to adjust budgets and allocate resources in response to new economic realities, finance professionals should be prepared to be flexible and considerate when negotiating leave days. For instance, apply for leave well in advance of the proposed dates to give the company enough time to plan for your absence.

“One example of flexibility is to spread out your leave days instead of taking the traditional two weeks of consecutive leave,” Opperman said. “This can help to minimise any disruption to the business at a time when many economies are slowly restarting.”

By demonstrating your willingness to be flexible and accommodate your team, you are also demonstrating that you value the organisation and remain committed to your role.

Present alternative solutions. For team members who don’t want to use up paid leave because of lockdowns and travel restrictions, it’s important to understand — and consider — the various options at hand. So, if you are feeling burned out or persistently anxious, then consider taking a few days of sick leave instead, Liss advised.

Alternatively, have an open and honest discussion with your manager and present possible solutions such as either “banking” or carrying over annual leave days or “selling back” unused annual leave entitlements at the end of the year. Be prepared for the discussion by listing potential questions and viewpoints from the organisation’s perspective and making sure you can provide well-considered responses.

“As with any negotiation, be aware of your language and the way you present your case,” Liss added. “For example, instead of saying, ‘This is what I want’, rather say, ‘This is what I would really like, how could we make this work?’”

From an organisational perspective, Opperman underscored the importance of clearly communicating the company’s policy on leave accrual.

“I would recommend that HR teams and managers discuss leave on a case-by-case basis to understand every situation on its own merit,” he said. “There is usually an opportunity for compromise when you look at the needs of different team members — for example, Millennials and Gen Y employees dreaming of travelling again next year will be happy to work in December, while parents will need to be home to look after children while schools are closed.”

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at