Anyone who has ever worked in retail (or experienced it through a partner) knows what a full-on working environment and experience it can be. Always on your feet, always customer-facing… precious little time to de-stress in the same way as head office colleagues who can take advantage of the on-site gym or lunchtime yoga classes.
But a growing number of retail employers are helping their employees wind-down and through buying extra holiday.
For Lynn Stevens, who has worked at Marks & Spencer for 18 years in its Merry Hill store in Dudley, near Birmingham, it’s the most important employee benefit she receives. It means she can travel to visit relatives in South Africa each year without sacrificing the time she wants to spend with her sons and granddaughter back home.
"I lost my mum 10 years ago and since then I've become very close to my auntie in Johannesburg, who has become my mother figure," explains Lynn. "But she’s 72 now and isn’t able to travel much. South Africa is a long way and I like to go for four or five weeks. So being able to buy extra holiday means I can also spend time off with my family here too."
As is the case with most holiday leave purchase schemes, Lynn is able to pay for the extra weeks direct from her monthly salary. Better still, she makes use of the M&S Sharesave scheme to buy and sell shares to fund her flight tickets to the southern hemisphere.
But benefits like these help underpin Lynn’s loyalty to the company. With the opening this November of a new M&S store in Longbridge – former site of the MG Rover car plant – Lynn will be taking on a new role. Having spent the past 10 years as a lingerie coach, training new staff in skills such as bra-fitting, Lynn will now be a lingerie section co-ordinator, helping to supervise 24 members of staff, 22 of whom are new to the company.
Lynn, who is planning her next trip to South Africa in February to celebrate her aunt’s birthday, is used to recommending M&S to newcomers – her younger son worked for the company for five years, while her elder son has just joined M&S from Waitrose. "I’ve encouraged them to join," she says proudly.
There is a buzz at present in the HR and benefits world about the growing trend to offer employees ‘unlimited holiday’ – social network LinkedIn is the latest to join Virgin, Netflix and accountancy firm PKF Cooper Parry in removing restrictions from employees on how many holidays they can take across the year.
LinkedIn says its offer of ‘discretionary time off’ is in line with its corporate value of ‘act like an owner’. Typically, employees consult with their line manager to ensure that leave granted does not impact on business needs and results. In fact, these employers believe it may even boost performance, helping employees recharge and remain engaged in their roles – allowing them, as LinkedIn claims, to ‘bring their best self to work’.
Unlimited holiday may be a step too far for most organisations at this stage. Not every employer can extend its holiday benefits to such an extreme: many need to ensure they have employees in place at key times to enable the business to deliver on its commitments.
However, employers who operate an annual leave salary sacrifice scheme, which allows employees to buy more holiday – whether to spend more time with family, get married, do volunteer work, or simply just to travel – report higher employee engagement and morale and, as a result, improved productivity at work.
"We've been really pleased with the popularity of this benefit and we've seen a steady increase in uptake," says Deborah Warman, head of reward and global mobility at Marks & Spencer. "It appeals to both young and old, with our employees able to buy up to two weeks' worth of extra holiday, or as little as half a day. It gives people the flexibility to work out what's best for them, and to find a healthy work/life balance.
"In general, we feel that employees with a healthier work/life balance should be happier in the workplace, and hopefully more productive. It's ultimately a win-win benefit, as the knock-on effect is a better store experience for our customers."
Chloe Evans, a 25-year-old food section manager managing 25 staff in the M&S store at Eastbourne’s Arndale Centre, recently returned from an extended trip to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, thanks to the retailer’s annual leave salary sacrifice scheme.
"I’ve taken advantage of the chance to buy extra holiday a couple of times," explains Chloe, whose partner works for a Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership. Their trip to Las Vegas was timed to coincide with a Harley Davidson dealer show there.
The benefits of working for M&S are a world away from her previous role handling claims for an insurance company, she’s happy to admit. "I’m an active person, so I much prefer working in retail," says Chloe, who joined as a trainee section manager six years ago. "I had a bit of a bumpy start to my role at M&S, to be honest, but the training and development here is so good that I’m very happy being where I am now.
"M&S is very people-oriented and I'm very much a people person. I love getting to know my team, getting to meet and serve the customers and providing an experience for them in store. But my family life is very important too, and being able to buy these extra two weeks’ holiday each year helps me get that balance right."
The option to buy extra holiday is just one part of the M&S range of flexible benefits, called Choices, which can be accessed by the 75,000 employees in its 852 UK stores via computers, mobile phones and tablets.
Could unlimited holidays join this range of flexible benefits at some point? "These sorts of unlimited entitlements are interesting approaches for certain companies. They sound great in principle, but I'm not sure they work so well in practice," says Warman.
"My concern would be that some staff might end up taking less holiday than they are legally entitled to, which would, I’m sure, be a real concern for all companies. It's also really important to us that we operate a benefits system that is rooted in fairness. So the ‘unlimited’ approach might work for some smaller companies, but I'm not sure it would be feasible for an international retailer of M&S’ scale."
But Warman says she is always on the lookout for interesting options that M&S employees would appreciate and respond well to. "We spend a lot of time chatting to our colleagues to see what would make a difference," she says, citing the example of a recently launched mobile phone benefit.
"In the same way that the option to buy extra holiday, laptops or partake in a cycle-to-work scheme, this allows us to respond to our employees' changing habits and lifestyles."