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Time off
  1. I D Wacogne
  1. Dr Wacogne was on secondment at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Brisbane for two years and is now completing his SpR training at the North Staffordshire Hospital, UK.

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“We’d like to offer you a consultant post. Before you accept, however, please note the terms and conditions of the post, and in particular the following stipulation: After ten years of continuous employment we insist that you take, in addition to your usual annual leave, a further three months of paid holiday …”.

Most of us would wake up at this point and realise that it was all a dream. In fact, judging from the panic regarding senior posts amongst paediatric trainees in the UK, some would regard the offer of the job as the surprising part of the dream.

Long service leave is a quirk of Australian employment history. Like many other quirks, folk have become used to it, and any fundamental alteration to it would be political suicide. The original reasoning went, I think, something like this. Many Australians were European immigrants who had left family behind. The boat trip to Europe took a few weeks, and so for someone to maintain any ties with “back home” they needed enough holiday for the trip. This benefit is reasonably realised after ten years of continuous employment, and has to be applied across the workforce. With the arrival of cheap intercontinental flight, and the fact that nowhere in the world is further than 36 hours away from anywhere else, you can do a great deal more with your three months, but it has not altered the basic provision of this now fundamental right.

There are flaws of course. For example, many of the consultants employed in hospitals are visiting medical officers or VMOs; essentially private consultants, mostly self employed but contracted to the hospital for a number sessions per week. Their public sessions would be covered in the agreement, but of course their private practices would need to continue, or alternative staffing found. In addition, the cost to the employer is great. Every tenth year the employer needs to find an extra quarter of a year of wages, or work with one employee down.

The pluses are obvious. After this leave the employer might find the employee rejuvenated, ready to apply themselves to their job with new vigour. At least, I imagine the employer would hope so. In addition, employee loyalty to a particular organisation should be bolstered, although in this increasingly flexible world this might be regarded as a negative feature.

There are some other differences in the area of annual leave. In the past in the UK, I have been used to taking my annual leave during each six month placement. However, in Queensland I accrue holiday at a fraction of the total year each pay period, and can spend it, with negotiation, when I wish. A recent directive from my employer here states that I can accrue a total of no more than two years’ worth of annual leave—for health and safety reasons—but even this is at odds with the British system of “take it or lose it”. Strangely, I’m paid an extra 15% while I’m on leave too. Again, I think that this is to help with the cost of travel “back home”, although for junior doctors it also reflects that a significant proportion of the wages result from the penalties earned in overtime and out-of-hours work on top of the forty hour week.

The long service leave has an impact also on the length of normal annual leave. More than a couple of decades ago in the UK, taking a fortnight’s leave was considered a bit racy, especially if you spent it all overseas. Although this attitude has altered, eyebrows are raised if you take three or more weeks, especially if you are actually holidaying for this whole period. Here you could happily take four, and easily take six. It brings to mind the hardworking and highly regarded senior colleague of mine in the UK who once told me that she was considering only taking one week off at a time in the future, because when she took two she found that she wound down too much—a revelation which I found both telling and a little sad.

Lastly, in the bottom right hand corner of my wage slip there are two numbers, one with A/L next to it, for annual leave, and one with S/L next to it. Watching it for a while, it goes up by about 80 a year, and it took me a while to figure out that this was in fact my sick leave allowance (in hours). An employee thus is granted two weeks of paid sick leave a year, and after that you are on your own. This seems harsh to me; we know that some people need more time off than others. It also has the effect of implying to some people that their sick leave is a special—supplementary—annual leave, supporting the Aussie tradition of “taking a sickie”. However, some professions—for example, the police force—donate two days of accrued sick leave a year to a special fund, ready to help colleagues in dire need of extended leave, and there are other special arrangements for extended illness.


Moreton Island, Queensland.

Now to get back to my dream. They are just getting to the part where I never have to work on a Friday afternoon or a Monday morning …