How to: take control of planned leave

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This guidance offers advice on the most effective methods for taking control of planned leave within an organisation in order to optimise the productivity of the workforce and minimise inefficiency. 


While it may be considered one of the simpler aspects of the workforce planning process, managing planned leave effectively is essential to maintain continuity of service and to ensure that workforce productivity is optimised.

Planned leave covers a wide range of absences from work and should not be confused with annual leave. Planned leave covers all absences that an NHS organisation will be aware of in advance and therefore includes things ranging from compassionate leave to maternity and paternity leave. The fact that the organisation is aware well in advance that the employee will be absent should mean that they can plan around this, minimising the requirement for temporary or agency staff.

Types of planned leave common within the NHS include:

  • annual leave
  • maternity leave
  • paternity and parental leave
  • career breaks
  • time off for training
  • secondments
  • time off for jury duty or trade union duties
  • time off for religious holidays.

Ensuring that planned leave is managed effectively is dependent on a number of factors, ranging from effectively aligning workforce plans with activity and ensuring that robust policies are in place, to communicating effectively with staff across the organisation. As with all workforce planning scenarios, the key is to have the right people, in the right place at the right time doing the right things.

Workforce planning

To take control of planned leave, it is first important to ensure that the staffing ‘establishment’ for your ward or department is properly aligned with activity. This will enable you to ensure that you have the right number of people working with the right skills at any given time and in turn ensure that leave can be planned around rotas that minimise the requirement for the booking of agency staff.

The key elements to consider when developing rotas are:

  • ensure that rotas are accurately aligned with activity
  • develop clear rationale for the numbers and skills or staff required to be working at any time based upon this activity
  • assign shifts to individuals, ensuring that the working time directive and contracts of employment are adhered to (this can be done through self-rostering and through the use of e-rostering software, see below)
  • once rotas have been developed, it is important to then ensure that there are a sufficient number of staff at work at all times, a process that requires robust policies to be developed and adhered to (see below).

Short and long-tern planned leave

Planned leave can broadly be divided into two categories for the purposes of workforce planning, long term planned leave (including maternity leave, paternity and parental leave, career breaks and secondments) and short term planned leave (such as annual leave, time off for training, jury duty, trade union duties and religious holidays).

Generally speaking, long term planned leave is simpler to manage in terms of minimising use of bank and agency staffing as it is often a case of ensuring that the employee going on leave is identified at an early stage and that plans are put in place to cover their absence, often through a secondment, acting up arrangement or recruiting an individual on a fixed-term contract. The focus of this guidance is on short-term planned leave, with a specific focus on annual leave which can prove more difficult to plan around.


Ensure there are clear policies in place and that these policies are communicated to staff in inductions, throughout employment via internal communication systems such as the intranet.

While every NHS organisation’s policies on planned leave will differ slightly in order to reflect its own individual circumstances, some of the key features to consider are listed below.

  • A clear policy on the process for booking annual leave, ensuring that the process is fair and is applied to all staff equally.
  • The level of authorisation required for the sign off of leave. While requiring a relatively senior employee such as a matron may lead to a greater level of control over who can take leave and when, in large departments this may not always be practical. One way to help alleviate this problem is by having effective and accurate information systems in place (see below).
  • The period of notice required when booking leave. It is inevitable that the period of notice staff are required to give when requesting annual leave will vary depending on the specific circumstances within their department, however it is often helpful to have a guideline period within a policy. Granting requests for annual leave at short notice can often lead to an increase in the use of agency or locum staff as internal cover can be more difficult to find. It is therefore important to encourage employees to plan their leave carefully throughout the year, and where possible allow managers to monitor how much leave their employees have taken so they can plan leave for the team across the year. Similarly, when employees request other types of planned leave, such as secondments and parental leave, it is essential that the relevant policies are clear on the period of notice that must be given.
  • Consider how you will approach times of the year when you know staff will want more annual leave, such as Christmas, Easter, summer, bank holidays, school holidays and the end of the holiday year. Demand for leave at these times is likely to be much higher than usual so it may be worth having specific policies around busy periods and ensure that you are fair and equitable to all employees.
  • Communicating decisions regarding leave with staff. Share with staff the reasons behind the policy and the approach you are taking – this isn’t about stopping staff having the leave they need, but ensuring safe, quality patient services are delivered (see engagement below).
  • Carrying over annual leave can be a useful benefit for some members of staff but the use of this should be monitored and controlled in a way that ensures the organisation does not create any difficult cover circumstances the following year. The lines need to be very clear about how many days can be carried over and whether there need to be special circumstances to do so.

Each organisation is likely to have its own policies in place for annual leave and other types of planned leave, but it may be a good idea to revisit the existing policies to ensure that planned leave is rarely used as a reason to book agency staff. By ensuring that policies are up to date and communicated well to all staff, workforce planners should always try to cover planned leave within the substantive workforce.

Rostering, monitoring and technology 

Ensuring that there are good mechanisms in place to monitor how much planned leave has been taken and how much is booked in the future will help with workforce planning.

There are various tools available that can assist organisations with this process that range from Intranet based tools for requesting annual leave to thorough rotas and comprehensive e-rostering systems.

As can be seen from the example of Taunton and Somerset Hospitals (download the case study), having access to accurate, timely and reliable information on  working patterns can prove to be a valuable aid in reducing spend on agency.

It may also be useful to consider the effects of when in the week annual leave is requested, especially when considering the potential impact of the cost of replacement temporary and agency staff which can be greater during evenings and weekends. If employees request part weeks of leave there is the potential for creating a situation where annual leave is clustered at the end of a week. This can mean that agency and bank cover can prove more expensive to acquire.


Having robust and coherent policies in place to manage planned leave is clearly essential. However, unless managers, employees and staff side representatives are fully aware of the policies, and the reasons behind them are fully communicated, it is unlikely that a policy will ever be truly effective.

It is therefore essential to share with staff the reasons behind the policy and the approach taken by the organisation you are taking –this isn’t about stopping them having the leave they need, but ensuring safe, quality patient services are delivered.

It is also vital that everyone managing staff, and especially those with responsibilities for approving leave requests (see above) are fully trained in the policies to ensure that they are implemented correctly, fairly and equally. This will enable you to keep a closer control on leave requests.

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