No vacation nation?

An alarming number of American employees have trouble taking paid time off from work.

young man in suit on the beach holding red do not enter sign
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A recent report by my employer Kimble showed that just over half of all U.S. workers didn’t take all of their vacation time last year. I think that’s a shame because it is not only better for employees and their families if they do take that time off, but it is better for businesses too since people generally come back refreshed, more positive and focused.

But how do business leaders ensure people do take advantage of their paid time off? For me, an important part of this is creating clarity about the expectation that employees should aim to take all of their vacation days.

There has been a recent trend for companies to announce an "unlimited vacation" policy. Personally, I don’t agree with this approach. I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing that in many of these organizations, people don’t take very much vacation, probably less than the average. Looked at another way, these employees have effectively lost their vacation entitlement.

I have found in the companies that I have been part of running, that if people know how many days they are entitled to take and there is a clear expectation that they will plan and schedule these in advance, they tend to do that.

Making time for vacation

People generally look forward to their vacations and they enjoy them when they go, but it is easy to get stuck in a rut and convince yourself you can’t afford the time. More than a quarter, 27 percent, of the survey respondents said they had too much to do to go away while another 13 percent feared returning to too much work. But, my experience is that once the time is blocked out in the diary and the vacation is booked, then people will organize their schedules around that.

It is not good for anyone if all work and no play leaves employees dull and jaded — or in the jargon "browned-out," meaning someone is in a state where they are going through the motions, working at less than optimum level. That is bad for morale and it is often a precursor to the individual leaving the business, which leads to the cost of attrition and recruitment. This is not the way to build and sustain high-performing teams.

From a business point of view, knowing that every employee is likely to be absent on paid leave for a certain number of days a year helps to budget. In a workplace culture where people are encouraged to schedule their vacations, managers are also likely to have a clearer view across the year of who is going to be off when and that makes forecasting and resource management easier too.

Letting employees see easily how much time they have taken and how much they have left reminds them if they still have a lot of vacation to take. This encourages forward planning — no business wants everyone suddenly disappearing at the end of the year.

The solution? A zero carry over policy

Sometimes businesses offer to pay for vacation that isn’t taken or offer to carry over any unused allowance to the following year, which I don’t think that is a good idea. In the companies I’ve run we’ve actually enforced a zero carry over policy and only allow a minimal level of carry over with manager approval.  

We also ensure that managers are measured on getting their teams to take full allocation as sometimes it’s the managers that are the problem. In our survey, one in five, 19 percent said they felt pressured not to take time off and another 7 percent felt anxious that the request would not be approved. Clarity for managers that they need to proactively encourage not discourage vacation requests is an effective way of improving the situation.

Another issue highlighted by the survey was that more than half of US workers log in to work remotely while on vacation — 19 percent every day and 29 percent periodically. My instinct is that people probably shouldn’t do this - but I am probably not a good example as I do it myself. With data communications becoming more easily and virtually free wherever you are in the world and whatever you are doing it’s very hard to be off the grid however hard you try, so I think this number is only going to go up.

Are you part of the No Vacation Nation?

I have always dipped into my work while I am away, usually every day, sometimes periodically. This is not a problem for me - I enjoy my work and spending a bit of time on email doesn’t usually interfere with me having a nice vacation. But it is hard to generalize — it depends very much on what someone’s role is, what their personal circumstances are and what they are doing with their time off.

I think it is a good idea for managers, or businesses, to set up processes which help to minimize the stress this could cause employees. It is a very simple thing but reminding employees to set up an email auto reply which tells people the dates of their vacation and offers another contact for urgent queries makes a big difference. It sets expectations and reduces the amount of email that is likely to be waiting for them when they return.

It may be an idea to set different protocols for different methods of communication - for instance, texting people who are on vacation about work issues should be avoided. It may be OK to send some emails — as long as it is understood there may not be a reply for a few days.

At the end of the day, a workplace where people feel constrained or pressured into not taking their vacation time does not sound like a great place to work. Every employer should remember that people do have choices.

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