Evaluating the organization’s mindset around employee vacation time

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

Senior Leaders: What are your attitudes and behaviours regarding vacation?

Publicly, most leaders say that taking time is important. However, if you don’t take vacation time yourself, or employees are made to feel guilty for taking theirs, the incongruency of your words and actions can lead to burnout for yourself and others in the organization.

The pressure to achieve targets and meet operational work plans and timelines has not lifted during COVID. For many businesses, they have intensified. Your employees know this, and they may be hesitant to take their vacation for fear of being judged negatively or falling behind in their work. However, if this continues, they will begin to burn out, which will have a far more devastating impact on targets and objectives.

Not taking time off can create problems, such as increased sick time, increased short- and long-term disability claims due to chronic stress, and negative impacts on employees’ mental health and emotional well-being.

Vacations matter

Senior leaders who believe vacation time is essential for employees to charge their mental batteries and get a break from work talk about it often. They promote the importance of time away from work, and they model the behaviour they want to see from employees.

PwC in the US announced earlier this year that it was taking a further step to ensure employees take the time available to them by providing $250 to every employee for every 40 hours of vacation time used. CEO Tim Ryan said, “What you do with that time is up to you. We just want you to take it.”

Obviously, that is a bit extreme, but it sends a clear message that vacation is important. Employees need the opportunity to step away completely from work to recharge and reconnect with family and friends.

Talk openly and regularly about vacation

Supervisors and managers are important influencers of healthy behaviours. They should have regular conversations with their teams about vacation plans. On top of avoiding the challenge of too many people being off at once, it also ensures that employees don’t miss out on earned vacation time because of use-it-or-lose-it policies.

In organizations that allow employees to bank vacation time, senior leaders should ensure managers talk to employees about their plans to ensure they are banking for the right reasons. Planning to take a month off for a family visit to New Zealand is a different motivation than just banking time because one is super busy and feels guilty thinking about taking time off or afraid they will fall behind.

Regular and open conversation reinforces that vacation is not only accepted but encouraged and allows managers and senior leaders to address any barriers or misperceptions that exist head-on.

Tips for encouraging the use of vacation time:

  • Education — Talk about the value of vacation and share wellness insights.
  • Vacation time return to work planning — Many employees get stressed out about what they will face when they return to work after vacation. Create a return-to-work plan with the employee’s direct manager so they can rest into knowing they won’t feel overwhelmed when they return to the office. And, if necessary, have someone else step into an acting role or cover their responsibilities while they are away.
  • Create a clearly defined vacation time policy — Most people do not like losing things, so the thought of losing something can spark behavioural action. Policies that state what percentage of vacation time must be used and what can be banked for future holidays can promote the desired behaviour. Alternatively, you might consider an opposite approach like PwC that incents employees to take vacation. Either can work. You have to decide which fits with your culture and the other policies in place.
  • Take a zero-tolerance stance on vacation shaming — Make it clear there is no tolerance for making employees feel guilty for taking vacation time.
  • Set a vacation time wellness goal for the organization — Set a goal for the average percentage of vacation time to be used and banked each year. Report on these metrics monthly like sick time to ensure this conversation stays top-of-mind for leaders and employees.
  • Add employee vacation time planning to the annual review process — As leaders work with their direct reports to set personal and professional goals for the year, have them discuss how and when employees will use their vacation time.
  • Leadership vacation role modelling — Senior leaders setting the expectation for using vacation time can carry a lot of weight and influence middle managers and employees to take their vacation time.

You should monitor vacation with the same rigor that you do sick time. Determine what percentage of vacation time is used by the average employee and leader. This will help you gain insight into overall well-being in your workplace. Decreasing sick time and increasing vacation time are strong indicators of a psychologically safe workplace.

And, if you suspect there is some incongruence in your workplace, you can conduct a quick, informal assessment to confirm your suspicions. It’s easy to create a very short, anonymous poll. Collect responses from senior leaders about their attitudes and behaviours with respect to vacation time and then ask the workforce what they believe the senior leadership feels about it and then compare.

It’s easier to take corrective action when you know what is really going on.


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