Do Everyone a Favor and Take Your Vacation
It’s almost summer, and a good time to reflect on how you’ll spend it. In The Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson wrote an article on the topic of Americans and vacation time that may be relevant. It’s a familiar refrain that Americans work too much and neglect to take our allotted vacation days. Even when we do take them, we have pseudo-vacations, where we’re incapable of severing our connections to our iPhones and laptops, taking calls from our lounge chairs on the beach.
We work more than our European counterparts, who get a month of vacation time per year, and take every bit of it with entitled gusto. Americans, however, take pride in taking less and less. Samuelson argues that our aversion to vacations isn’t entirely bad; after all, this habit reveals that the American work ethic is alive and well.
But foregoing vacation as a culture does have consequences. According to 2013 study by Oxford Economics, our unused vacation days are at a 40-year high: U.S. workers are only using 77% of paid time off, and in 2013, they took an average of 16 days of vacation, compared with 20.3 days in 2000. In other words, we’re getting away from the office even less now than we were before.
But why? Economic concerns are certainly a factor, but more than that, people are afraid of returning from their vacations to a mountain of work. And many also believe that taking time off sends a signal to their boss that they aren’t invested in their work or the company, and that they are easily replaceable. Not to mention, some higher ups don’t take vacation, so that ruins it for everyone else.
What gets overlooked is that vacation time has benefits for employer and employee alike. For one, when employees go on vacation, turnover rates drop – with every 40 hours of vacation time extending employees’ stay at the company by eight months. And when people take their paid vacation days, their productivity and creativity also get a boost.
For the employee, the benefits are more obvious. Based on internal research by audit firm EY, Maryella Gockel, EY flexibility strategy leader, says, “In the U.S. and Canada … for each 10 vacation hours a person took, we found on average that performance reviews were 8 percent higher,” which translates to raises and bonuses for the employee.
Anne Weisberg, senior vice president at the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit that examines the “work-life fit,” argues that employers can play an important role in encouraging employees to take their vacation time. “We all know this intuitively, that we are not performing at our best when exhausted,” she said. “Taking a break can bring you back and increase your performance. People on some level understand that. The question is what is the tone being set by the team leader?”
So how do we, as employers, managers and leaders, encourage workers to take the time off they deserve and need to re-energize? Here are some suggestions:
Set the right example.
If you’re prone to answering every email and phone call that comes through on your own vacation time, then consider the example you’re setting for your team members. If you’re in constant touch on your vacation, it sets the tone that truly checking out of work during vacation time isn’t permissible.
Role model how to take a vacation – for real. Set up an automated response email, and only respond to absolutely urgent emails while you’re away. Direct all calls to an assistant or colleague at the office. Show your employees that vacation time matters to you and to your company and its culture.
Remove obstacles to taking time off.
If you’re still requiring employees to ask their boss or submit paperwork to HR every time they take a vacation, then you may be discouraging employees from taking time off. Instead, start using HR software where employees can submit and get approval for their vacation days online, from the privacy and comfort of their desks.
In addition to burdensome paperwork, overwhelming workloads can also be disincentives to employees considering a vacation. Be aware of how much work you’re assigning, and allow some flexibility regarding due dates, especially if you know your employee is about to be out of the office. If they’re constantly thinking about all the work they should be doing while they’re away, then they won’t reap all the benefits of a vacation.
Make it known that vacation time is valued at your company. Around the winter holidays or during the late spring months, send out emails reminding employees of their remaining number of vacation days. Express enthusiasm when you know that an employee is taking some time off to relax and reboot. Make a point to ask about vacations in meetings and group settings. The more you can demonstrate that time off is expected and valued, the more likely your employees will feel confident in taking the time away they deserve.
Have a “use it or lose it” vacation day policy, with flexibility.
Rollover vacation days may sound like a good idea, but in practice, they discourage people from taking advantage of their earned time off. According to a study from GfK and The U.S. Travel Association, 84% of employees with a “use it or lose it” policy planned to use all their paid time off, compared with less than half who could roll over, bank or get paid for unused vacation time. The logic is this: if people know that they only have one shot to take their vacation days, then they are more likely to use them up.
There is room for flexibility here as well. Allow people to submit for special exemptions to their vacation, so they can bank some time if they have a wedding, special trip, or family need to attend to. Some companies will also let employees bank their time for a sabbatical, such as a month off, once every five years or so.
Or be really progressive and go unlimited.
In recent years, some companies, including Netflix, LinkedIn and Virgin, have done something progressive: they’ve ditched the idea of a set number of paid vacation days altogether. This is a trend that’s gained serious steam over the past five years.
With unlimited time, companies trust their employees to take the number of days off they deem reasonable. Evidence shows that when left to their own discretion, employees don’t tend to abuse this perk; instead, they take about the same number of vacation days before the policy was instituted.
When Riot Games instituted an unlimited paid time off policy, Carl Kwoh, head of talent operations and systems, noted that workers began spreading out their vacation days, as opposed to taking it in big chunks of time. “We now see people who create four day weekends, who take one or two days off at a time. We see that a lot.”
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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