The trouble with vacation time: Why Americans won't take time off
Summer wanes, and alas, so does the vacation season – if you or your colleagues actually took any time off, that is.
To say this is a hot topic in HR is cliché. A new day, a new take on
- how not vacationing impacts your health, or
- how you can vacation without succumbing to electronic devices, or
- how you can actually make employees admit they are going on vacation before they drop everything and disappear to the beach out of fear of telling anyone they are daring to take time out of the office.
But the issue is real: 40% of workers left vacation time on the table in 2014, according to a study by Project Time Off, even though it is almost universally accepted that a strong workforce requires a decent amount of time off.
Even as companies work to make vacation time accessible, conflicting opinions and policies on best practices for paid time off may trouble the uncertain HR manager – especially those who are dealing with reticent employees.
Pros and cons: unlimited vacation time
The vacation solution du jour: take away all restraints and make vacation time unlimited. Research and management consulting company Gallup argues “the best vacation policy is no policy.”
While not practical for all business types, Gallup says, an open vacation policy can clear some bureaucratic accounting headaches – a policy we’ve seen in practice at Netflix, which eliminated formal paper-pushing in a number of their benefits, including their heralded parental leave policy.
But many say such a solution doesn’t solve the heart of the problem: no one actually uses their time.
Research from staffing firm The Creative Group reveals that about 39% of advertising and marketing executives interviewed believe office output would increase if employees could take time off whenever they wanted, as long as their performance didn't suffer. Yet a majority of executives also said the amount of vacation they would take under an unlimited policy would not change from the amount of vacation they take under more traditional policies.
Some question the veracity of “unlimited.” German company Travis VI eventually switched from an unlimited policy to a minimum vacation time policy (in which their employees are encouraged to take off at least five weeks every year) because employees were unsure just what amount of vacation time is considered acceptable.
“When everyone keeps track of their own vacation days, two things can happen,” Mathias Meyer, CEO, wrote in a company blog post. “They either forget about them completely, or they're uncertain about how much is really okay to use as vacation days.”
Some companies use an unlimited policy to encourage less vacation time by using the policy to make everyone more “accountable,” Meyer writes. Additionally, much of the talent that companies with unlimited policies want to hire would be less likely to take a vacation at all due to their work habits, writes Time.
Fear as the motivation
While those in Germany, Scandinavia and France routinely take around six weeks off for vacation each year, Americans continue to leave 429 million vacation days on the table, according to Fortune.
Even global companies that do work hard to encourage vacation time may face backlash from American employees who aren’t used to it. Ruth Smythe, head of HR for Alexander Mann Solutions, said that they adapted their UK-style vacation policy in their American offices – and at first, American employees didn’t know what to think.
“They genuinely didn’t trust it,” she said in an email. “And I think the general feeling was that, secretly, the generous vacation policy was a ruse to lure people in, and behind it was a hidden unwritten rule that you don’t actually get to take all that paid time off.”
Eden Elder, the chief people officer at FullContact, calls this distaste for vacation “a fear-driven concept.”
“If I leave, it becomes known someone else can do my job,” she said, explaining why employees tend to not take all of their paid time off. In response, her company instituted “paid paid time off,” in which employees are paid $7,500 once a year to go on vacation, so long as they promise to completely unplug from their work.
Part of the reason this program works, Elder explained, is that FullContact ensures that no one employee is a “single point of failure” – essentially, there is always someone who can help fill in for another if an employee needs to take time out. That way, no one feels like they are letting the company down when they go on vacation.
Company culture can easily get in the way of any generous vacation policy, noted Ray Baumruk, employee research leader at Aon Hewitt. Employees who take vacation may not be seen as committed, for example, or lose out on promotion.
Arcane PTO policies, with different days off specified for different uses (sick leave, parental leave, vacation time) may prevent employees from using their time altogether out of confusion.
“One of the reasons people aren’t using [paid days off] is that people don’t know enough about them,” Baumruk said.
Culture as the problem
If a company is committed to improving employee restfulness, they may have to tweak company infrastructure to support it. How does a company plug an employee-sized hole without putting undue stress (or blame) on the employee?
Deb LaMere, VP of Employee Engagement at Ceridian, explained that management needs to have a purposeful plan in place to support individual employees in case of longer absences.
“Workplace leaders should effectively help employees manage their workload by advising on what should be considered a priority deliverable, adjusting or moving deadlines as necessary and by getting colleagues to agree to pick-up any critical items that cannot wait until the vacationing employee returns,” she told HR Dive in an email.
Vacationing employees should be encouraged to give a briefing of their current projects before they leave and provide any necessary resources, like vendor phone numbers, to help the company deal with any emergencies that pop up during their absence, LaMere added.
But fully changing the culture starts at the top. If you want people to take vacation, ask your managers to do so first.
“People will unconsciously start to mirror the behavior of those in leadership roles, by working out what is valued in a culture and demonstrating those behaviors,” Smythe said of her workplace. “It is valued and recognized as a positive to take a break here, not the opposite.”
Allowing vacation time reflects an investment in your workforce, key when competing for talent. Feeling taken care of also allows employees to more fully focus on their work, which is a natural boon for productivity.
We have a feeling managers won’t mind.
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