The A to Z of Arts Management - Holidays

For years I’ve been an arts manager, an arts board member and an occasional arts management academic. I’ve used some great arts management books to both learn from and teach with. All of them offer great insights into the role. But they only seldom combine theory and practice, insights of success and failure, and story telling to help people understand how to do their job better. And so I wrote the A to Z of Arts Management to talk about aspects and competencies that aren’t usually found in many management textbooks. I will introduce some of them, such as love and empathy, holidays, uncertainty or upward management, in this series on Arts Management Network. In this chapter, as I hop on a plane to fly to Europe to escape Melbourne’s winter cold, I will recommend the rejuvenating effects of holidays for both you and your staff.

Australians are developing into a nation of ‘time poor’, ‘stress rich’ individuals. It is estimated that 40% of Australian workers do not take annual holidays, only 18% take their full entitlements and about 20% have not had a holiday in the past two years (Macken 2000 p.2).” Sound familiar which ever part of the world you’re in?

In arts organisations, people resist going on holiday because they feel indispensable. “There aren’t enough people to do the work at the best of times and who can possible do my job?” they say. You don’t have to be a manager to feel that way. Some of the hardest people to get out on the door on leave at Melbourne Theatre Company were skilled craft workers. But it’s never true. Someone else can always do your job. They may not be as good. They may do it differently. They may need more support. But they can do it. I particularly like this quote from philosopher Bertrand Russell as a reminder about being irreplaceable:  “[o]ne of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important” (quoted in Leigh & Maynard 2003, p.46).

Westman & Etzion (2001) suggest that the proper use of holidays helps reduce workplace stress with corresponding reductions in absenteeism and burnout. As this is true for all staff, as a manager you have to set a good example and go on leave. It may be at a time that doesn’t really suit you personally. It may be that it can only be a week at a time. But you have to do it in order to encourage others to use their leave and refresh themselves. And in the process you’ll benefit because as Leigh & Maynard say (2003, p. 46) “[le]isure and holidays are essential for sustaining leadership energy.

At Melbourne Theatre Company, people had huge amounts of accumulated leave. In some organisations the policy is that if you don’t take your leave within a set period of time you lose it, but this always felt unfair to me. People do value holidays so I had to find out why they weren’t taking them? The reasons were mainly the predictable ones (“no-one to replace me”, “too much work to do”) but an underlying issue was money. People in many arts jobs are at the lower end of the pay scale. Not because they have low skills but simply because the arts doesn’t pay well. And having a holiday that is anything more than sitting at home is expensive, particularly if you have a family. Put simply, people couldn’t afford to go on holidays. Once I realised this, the company developed a policy which enabled those with extensive leave balances to cash out some of them in exchange for committing to go on holiday. They still need to take leave but now they might be able to enjoy the time off. 

Different countries will have different legislation around the capacity to cash out leave. For example in Australia you can cash out a percentage of annual leave (If the relevant industrial award, agreement or enterprise bargain allows it) but mostly not long service leave. It’s worth knowing the legal requirements, having a policy that covers it and regularly checking people’s leave balances.

Once people agree to go on holiday, the UK Families and Work Institute recommends that “employers should discourage workers from taking work on vacation….Holidays should allow employees to feel rested and recharged so it’s important that work is reallocated when a person is on vacation so that they will not waste their holiday dreading the pile of working for them on their return” (quoted in Adams 2007, p.44)

Haywood (2001 p.127) suggests that for a vacation to be successful in reducing the outcomes of workplace stress, it has to involve:

  • Having no contact with the workplace
  • Leaving work tools such as laptops and mobiles behind
  • Wrapping up duties efficiently before leaving
  • Effectively delegating duties to others for the duration to avoid workload on return.

While sometimes it’s the challenge of making someone take holidays, sometimes it’s the opposite situation where an important member of the team wants to take holidays at a challenging time. If you value them, you just have to say ‘yes’. The temptation is to say ‘no’ – but I’ve seen what that means. People resign. Instead of a short term challenge you have a long term one to replace them.

There are a variety of other ‘leave’ entitlements that aren’t always in the form of ‘holidays’ but which can still contribute to creating a positive work culture. In Australia, sick leave can now be used by people with sick children or dependents or parents as well as themselves. As someone who has experienced the need for such leave, having a generous personal leave policy does build company loyalty and commitment. 

Different countries will have different legal provisions for leave but if you’re free to develop your own, an interesting example in the UK was a company that contracted staff to work a given number of hours per year with a reserve of 160 hours to take account of problems such as sickness, medical appointments and peak production times (Adams 2007). This acknowledges the different needs that people will have for leave but also that the organisation may need more from people on occasional too.

Sometimes it’s easy to be generous with leave that may not be called on very often. For example, after seeing people experiencing travel delays through volcanic ash or cyclones and the stress that this caused, it made sense to develop a new policy to give people some paid leave for catastrophes. It didn’t cost the organisation much and the attitude of care behind the gesture was valued by employees. Similarly, companies will often have a day or two day’s leave for death in the family but sometimes the death of a friend can be just as catastrophic and one can’t organise a funeral let alone grieve in a couple of days.

Often it’s a small gesture that can make a difference to people’s motivation and commitment to the organisation. A day off to relax and do some “me” things on your birthday. A day off for a religious celebration that isn’t formally recognised with a public holiday such as Eid-al-Fitr or Passover. A shopping day close to Christmas. There’s enough evidence that providing flexible strategies to improve work-life balance increases productivity, so it would be worth the investment.


  • Adams, J (2007), Managing People in Organizations: contemporary theory and practice, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
  • Haywood, C (2001), ‘Wish you weren’t here’ Financial Management (CIMA), July/August, 42-45.
  • Leigh, A & Maynard, M (2003), Perfect Leader, Random House Business Books, London.
  • Macken, D (2000), ‘Desperately seeking holiday’, Australian Financial Review, 2-3 December .
  • Westman, M  & Etzion, D (2001), ‘The impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism’, Psychology & Health, 16(5): 595-606.
Author/Source: Ann Tonks is specialised in leadership, management and governance in the non-profit sector. For many years she was the Managing Director of one of Australia’s most prestigious arts companies, Melbourne Theatre Company. These days, she’s an arts management consultant helping companies improve their governance, strategic planning and organisational culture. She also teaches graduate management courses at the University of Melbourne and Central Queensland University. Ann’s also been on many boards including superannuation, employer and industry associations, theatre, opera and dance companies.
Management Topic: Organisation & Leadership
Cultural Area: General
Submitted by editor-in-chief on Aug 23, 2016