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The Leave Pandemic: What The Public Sector Can Do To Prepare

The Leave Pandemic: What The Public Sector Can Do To Prepare

6 months ago By Emily Harris
The Leave Pandemic

A significant side-effect from COVID-19 for organisations both within the public and private sector revolves around leave. Because the pandemic has caused strict lockdown and border restrictions (both nationally and internationally) and increased workloads for many – especially within the public sector, many employees haven’t taken all of their allocated leave. However, this might all be about to change with restrictions easing and Australian borders opening up in time for Christmas and the New Year. Even in the last two weeks, the federal government have made considerable first steps to Australia’s international reopening plan, by establishing travel bubbles with New Zealand, Singapore, Korea and Japan. Just this week, it was also announced that fully-vaccinated eligible visa holders will be able to return to Australia from December first [1] (Visentin, L. 2021). States across Australia are also easing their border restrictions with South Australia being the latest state to open its borders.

With so many families finally able to be reunited for Christmas and planned domestic and international holidays back on the cards, leave applications are expected to skyrocket. Data released by market research company Roy Morgan in May showed eight million workers in paid employment now have 14.9 million days of annual leave due. This is an almost 16% increase from the beginning of 2020 prior to the pandemic outbreak[2] (Dexter, R. 2021). However, experts believe the accrued leave will have grown even bigger since May with both Sydney and Melbourne experiencing months of strict lockdowns. According to behavioural scientist Aaron McEwan from global research and advisory firm Gartner now that we can finally travel ‘there is a lot of people that are going to cash in their leave and take it'[3] (Sharples, 2021). And while this is welcome news for individuals, what are the implications for organisations? The expected onslaught of leave requests over the holiday and summer period will have considerable impacts on productivity levels for organisations across the sector, especially considering that many government services must remain operational over the Christmas period. Consequently, Public Sector People have provided some tips below to help organisations within the public sector prepare for the impending ‘leave pandemic’.

Managing Annual Leave Requests

While it’s important to allow employees downtime over the holidays - especially considering many haven’t had much opportunity to over the year – organisations need to be able to balance these needs with the needs of the organisation and ensure they can still function and serve the community effectively. Within Australia, all full-time and part-time employees are entitled to 4 weeks of annual leave while shift workers may get up to 5 weeks of annual leave per year depending on the agency and industry they work for. Under the Fair Work Act, an employer cannot unreasonably refuse to authorise an employee’s request to take annual leave[4] (Fair Work Ombudsman , 2021). Consequently, there are key considerations to make before approving (or declining) each leave request. The first port of call is to review your organisation’s leave policy and ensure it clearly sets out notice periods and how leave requests will be approved in writing. Having a policy in writing will help you resolve disputes if and when they arise. It’ll also provide guidance to managers who may be unsure how to handle particular requests. The challenge here is establishing a policy that will serve the operational needs of the organisation while still supporting the welfare of its staff. When setting or reviewing their leave policy, managers and leaders should consider how much notice staff are required to give. If they anticipate a period where multiple staff are wanting to take time off (e.g. the Christmas period) a requirement of their leave policy could be to ask employees to give more notice when requesting leave over that set period. Depending on the particular industry or service the government agency provide, organisation’s might allow employees to choose between time off during Christmas or summer. This could be a great option for many essential services within the public sector that are open year-round and can’t take seasonable shutdowns. That way, those who aren’t granted time off in December are given priority when booking leave in January/February[5] (Worknest, 2020).

Another great tactic for organisations reviewing their leave policy is to send out a survey to staff leading up to any holiday period, aksing employees when/if they intend to take leave over the next six months or so. This will give management a clearer picture of the number of requests they’ll expect to receive and prepare for them accordingly. A survey will also provide more transparency around who is planning to go away when. This makes it easier for teams to coordinate with each other regarding leave. Employees who are parents are probably keen to have time off during school holidays, while younger employees might be more flexible around dates and willing to take holidays outside of the peak season to save money. By encouraging your teams to collaborate and cover each other’s holidays (where possible) you’re ensuring operational requirements are met while providing an end solution everyone in the team is happy with.

Once your leave policy has been established, it must be clearly communicated across the organisation. Make sure everyone has access to a copy of the organisation’s leave/holiday policy. Furthermore, to avoid confusion and ensure every leave request is handled fairly and equally, organisations should settle on a single channel for submitting leave requests – whether this be via an online platform, emailing the HR department, pen and paper etc. No matter the system, it’s important that it can easily communicate in writing the progress of a leave request and be accessed by all employees. This prevents miscommunication and also leaves a clear paper trail if there’s a dispute.

Hiring Contract & Casual Staff

If you anticipate multiple staff to be on leave at the one time, or are experiencing a particularly busy period and require extra resources (e.g. the end of financial year) it might be worth hiring contract and casual workers to alleviate strains on your remaining team members and ensure overall output isn’t impacted significantly.

When contemplating hiring additional contract and casual staff, the following steps can help:

1. Even before formulating a job description, posting ads or reaching out to recruiters, it’s important to forecast; to predict the amount of extra staff your team or department will need, based on leave requests (your survey results can be a great tool for this) and the projected work demand or project pipeline. For example, if a number of important projects share the same deadline, or a local council has a number of events coming up over the Christmas period this will impact how many casual staff need to be hired. When forecasting it’s also important to consider the skill level of remaining staff – do they have the ability to take over workloads of those going on leave or will there be critical skill gaps in a person’s absence. This will help an organisation to focus on the specific skillsets they’ll need to recruit for. 

2. Once you’ve established the number of people you’ll need to hire, and more importantly the skills and functions they’ll need to cover, you can start creating job advertisements and reaching out to your professional networks and recruitment agencies. Luckily, contract work is very common within the public sector however, when seeking new engagements a contractor may review multiple opportunities a day, and because of the shorter timelines, the available time a contractor has between ‘gigs’ (especially if they’re good at what they do) is minimal. Consequently, as an organisation, you need to be able to grab their attention effectively and efficiently. To stand out from the crowd, it’s important to clearly articulate what makes your contract opportunity worth their time. Job postings for contract positions should be precise and to the point and it’s important to try not to include a long list of rigid experience qualifications and responsibilities. This will make it easier for them to quickly assess whether the opportunity is a good fit and if so, motivate them to apply. 

3. Finding talented contract workers - especially if it's for specific skills - takes time so it’s important to give yourself enough of a buffer between starting the recruitment process and when crucial projects need to be delivered or you require staff to start working. While it's not always possible, having an additional two or three weeks up your sleeve gives you a great safety net if it takes longer than anticipated to secure talent or someone drops out during the recruitment process. It also ensures you don't put additional strain on your remaining staff who may have increased their own workload to cover for absent staff and help to ensure overall productivity levels are maintained.


If your organisation has specific recruitment needs leading up to the Christmas/January, it can be beneficial to reach out to a recruitment organisation that specialises within your particular industry or deals with contract roles. Public Sector People focuses solely on recruiting within the public sector, and a significant portion of our consultants work specifically within the contract space. This focus has ensured our consultants have built strong relationships with a number of candidates and are well versed in what will and won’t draw talent to a contract role.

If you’re looking to fill a particular contract position or advice on whether contracting would work for your organisation, don’t hesitate in reaching out to our specialised consultants.

You can reach us at:


Phone: (03) 8535 3111


[1] Visentin, L. (2021). Sydney, Melbourne To Reap Benefits From Return Of International Students, Skilled Workers. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: 

[2] Dexter, R. (2021). What Are We All Going To Do With All That Annual Leave Accrued During COVID? Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: 

[3] Sharples, S. (2021). The Great Sickie: Record Levels Of Accrued Leave To Bite Businesses.News.Com. Retrieved from: 

[4]Fair Work Ombudsman. (2021). Annual Leave. Australian Government. Retrieved from:

[5] Worknest. (2020). Christmas FAQs For Employers. Worknest. Retrieved from: 

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