Should Employers Force Workers to Take Time Off?

Two experts debate the issue.

By Jeffrey Oliver, SHRM-CP, and Sharon Whittaker March 7, 2022
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yes

Mandating vacations shows the company cares about employee health. 

Jeffrey Oliver, SHRM-CP
Requiring employees to take time off from work not only is good for their physical health and mental well-being, but also benefits the business. On their return to the workplace, employees will be rested and re-energized so they can be more creative and productive. 

In addition, adopting such a policy sends a clear message that the company prioritizes its employees’ health and is committed to minimizing the risks of employee burnout. 

When the pandemic hit in 2020, many employees didn’t take time off because their travel options were limited—or they feared layoffs. 

At the same time, employees worked an average of 48 minutes more each day, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

In 2021, 89 percent of 1,000 U.S. workers surveyed by Visier said they had experienced occupational burnout. While more planned to take vacations last year, 61 percent of 620 professionals surveyed by Korn Ferry said they usually check in with work at least once a day while on vacation.

With mandated time off, employees will no longer have to guess whether taking vacation will be frowned on by their superiors and reduce their chance of getting a promotion. They receive permission to do so. 

The Korn Ferry survey results showed that taking a vacation has a positive impact on individuals’ job performance; in fact, 80 percent of respondents said they have had a breakthrough work idea while relaxing on vacation.

A mandate to take time off also eliminates any guilty feelings employees might have when they need to ask co-workers to cover their duties while they’re away. Alamo Rent a Car’s 2019 Family Vacation Survey showed that 48 percent of surveyed workers felt guilty when taking time off because their co-workers were left with more work—and that was before we knew the emotional and physical toll a pandemic could have on our workforce.

Forcing employees to use vacation time also makes financial sense. If company policy allows employees to carry over unused paid time off (PTO), the impact on the company’s bottom line could be significant. When the employee leaves the company at some future point, the employer must pay the individual for unused vacation days. 

If the employer doesn’t allow cash payouts, employees who don’t use all of their vacation time are forfeiting a key component of their total compensation package. 

The volume of unused vacation time is staggering. In 2018, 768 million vacation days went unused, totaling around $65.5 billion in lost benefits to employees, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association. 

When the pandemic hit, employees left nearly all their PTO on the table. Vacation time is an earned benefit—and an important part of the total compensation package recruiters use to show the overall value of an employee’s work. 

If employees aren’t required to use their vacation time and can’t carry over or cash out their accrued PTO days, they are prevented from realizing the full cash value of their compensation package.

As human resource professionals, we have an obligation to try to ensure employees can realize their full earning potential if we’re going to leverage PTO as a bargaining chip in the salary negotiation process.

Employers should write clear policies that demonstrate full support for employees in the use of their earned vacation time. 

One of my favorite songs in 1998 was “Closing Time” by Semisonic. One lyric sums up the message employers should be delivering to their employees: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

Give your employees the nudge they need to use their vacation time.

Jeffrey Oliver, SHRM-CP, is chief people officer for Honest Medical Group in Nashville, Tenn., and an independent certified executive coach.


no

Employees want more autonomy at work, not less.

Sharon Whittaker Well before the pandemic hit, many U.S. workers weren’t taking all of the vacation time for which they were eligible.

They fear the mountain of work that will await them when they return and the recriminating stares of their co-workers when work is backlogged and deadlines are missed. They fear being replaced or marginalized because their managers don’t see them as dedicated or hardworking. 

Add to that the marathon days they must work before leaving for vacation, and it’s no wonder many employees report they can’t disconnect when they aren’t at work. 

If the goal is to foster a workplace culture where rest and rejuvenation are encouraged as a means to increase productivity and well-being, employers might be better served by identifying ways to remove the fear and anxiety employees associate with being away and unplugged. 

The top contributing factors to burnout are an increased workload, a toxic work culture, pressure to work faster and micromanaging bosses, according to a 2021 Visier research report. Of the 1,000 U.S. workers surveyed for that report, almost half (49 percent) said taking time off alleviated their burnout temporarily, but that the prep work and catch-up work take a toll. Another 10 percent said time off didn’t help with their burnout at all.

In addition, an August 2021 Gallup poll showed that a majority of workers (52 percent) were satisfied with the amount of vacation time they have.

A clear lesson we learned from the pandemic is that employees want a say in what conditions best support their productivity and well-being. Lack of autonomy and trust have been cited as reasons for the recent massive wave of workplace resignations.

Researchers at Claremont Graduate University and the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies in 2020 found that increased autonomy in simulated work situations resulted in greater individual and team productivity, as well as improved moods. In a 2017 study, researchers at the University of Birmingham business school in Birmingham, England, found that employees with a higher level of autonomy reported overall positive effects on their well-being and job satisfaction.

Even a little autonomy can go a long way. A 2010 University of Exeter study concluded that when employees were allowed to choose how to decorate their workspaces, their productivity increased by as much as 32 percent.

Mandating vacations takes away what employees tell us they want more of—flexibility and control over when and where they work. Telling employees they must take time off puts employers, instead of the employees themselves, in control of workers’ well-being. 

We know that having an annual physical improves overall health. Yet even though employers provide health care insurance that covers the costs, we don’t mandate annual exams. Similarly, instead of taking choice away from our employees, we should create environments where workloads are calibrated, performance is based on measurable results, and time off is celebrated and modeled by leaders in our organization. 

Just mandating vacations will not help organizations achieve their goals of greater productivity and well-being. But giving workers the autonomy to choose whether and when to go on a break—and providing a support system to pick up some of the work for those who do opt for a holiday—will ultimately make employees happier. And, as a result, they may choose to take vacations.

As children, most of us were told to “go outside and play.” As much as we relished time outside with the neighborhood kids, such marching orders never felt much like fun or play.    

Sharon Whittaker is senior director of human resources at Boston-based Mass General Brigham, an integrated health care system that includes 16 member institutions encompassing a range of health care organizations.




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