The thought of vacation time brings a smile to almost everyone. Yet research shows that many employees are thinking about skipping or at least shortening their vacation plans this year out of fear of being laid off or falling behind in their work. Others simply want to conserve their cash, given the uncertain economy.
That said, research also finds that workers at all levels benefit by taking time away from their jobs. They often become more engaged and productive when they return, prompting more companies to encourage employees to embrace vacations.
"Many people believe that taking time off work is a luxury, but the truth is that it's a necessity for both physical and mental health," said Singapore-based Lachlan Brown, founder of Hack Spirit, a website focused on psychology, relationships and personal development. In fact, the World Health Organization estimated that in 2016 (the latest year for which data is available), 745,000 people died in 2016 from heart disease and stroke related to working long hours. Taking a break from work in the form of a vacation is a proven way to de-stress, said Brown.
Some of the physical, mental and business benefits of taking time off include:
- Increased employee productivity and creativity upon return.
- Better worker retention, since vacation time, especially paid time off, is considered a prized perk.
- Lower health insurance costs.
- Opportunities for employees to explore new cultures and learning experiences.
"Some of the benefits I'm aware of include improved employee morale and job satisfaction, decreased absenteeism and turnover, increased productivity and lower health care costs," said Shirley Borg, HR manager at EnergyCasino in Gzira, Malta.
However, even though HR professionals understand the benefits of taking vacations, there is no federally mandated vacation time in the U.S., so each employer must decide what is best for its employees.
The average annual amount of paid vacation time for U.S. workers is 10 to 14 days, according to the jobs site Indeed. However, 25 percent of U.S. workers don't even receive that amount, CBS MoneyWatch reports. The situation is vastly different in other countries, with Austria ranking first with the most government-mandated paid time off at 38 days per year: 25 days of paid vacation time, plus 13 public holidays. Next are France and Spain at 36 days of paid time off each, followed by South Korea with 31 days, Germany with 30 days and the U.K. with 28. Japan requires 26 paid days off each year but karoshi, or death from overwork, is still a problem because many employees are reluctant to take vacation time.
Unfortunately, many U.S. employees have a similar reluctance. A recent Pew Research Center study, "How Americans View Their Jobs," found that nearly half of U.S. workers with paid time off (PTO) indicated they typically take less time than their employers provide. They gave the following reasons: not feeling a need for more time off (52 percent), being worried about falling behind (49 percent), feeling bad about co-workers taking on additional work (43 percent), being concerned about job advancement (19 percent), fearing losing their job (16 percent) and having a manager or supervisor who discourages them from taking time off (12 percent ).
How Can HR Help?
HR should be tasked with encouraging employees to take vacation time, said Ann Zaslow-Rethaber, CEO of International Search Consultants, an executive search firm based in Austin, Texas.
"We definitely encourage our recruiters to take periodic vacations to recharge. Inevitably they come back happier, stronger and more productive," she said. "I'm a huge believer in reviving our engines by changing up the scenery to get a fresh perspective. And yes, I definitely practice what I preach and aim to lead by example by unplugging and going on adventures away from the office at least once per quarter. I actually just returned from a week away in Mexico and can attest to the fact that I'm back at my desk, fully refreshed."
Zaslow-Rethaber added that she believes in an open-leave policy, rather than a proscribed number of vacation days.
"For our recruiters, we have no set vacation times," she said. "They all determine how much they want or more accurately need, and we all fully subscribe to the notion of work hard, play hard!"
Send Out Vacation Reminders
Employers with a "use it or lose it" vacation policy should prioritize reminding employees who have not taken their allotted vacation days to do so. If your company offers open leave or allows employees to roll over unused vacation days, emphasizing the benefits of regular annual vacations can help promote the practice.
Another idea is to encourage employees to share their vacation experiences with colleagues, said Jarir Mallah, who oversees sourcing and recruiting for Ling App. "Employees are encouraged to share their vacation experiences in our #vacation Slack channel, which may inspire others," he said.
For some employees, spending a week or more away from work creates too much stress, but there are alternatives, said Julia A. Nicholson, the Sacramento, Calif.-based author of Move Forward Stronger and former CEO of a $450 million company.
"I used to think I wasn't taking a vacation unless I flew or drove somewhere hours away and stayed in a hotel. But I've come to learn that any break, no matter how short or long, or how far away from home, can be a vacation and offer the same benefits," she said. "A weekend camping trip can be just as beneficial as a week on a warm sunny beach."
A so-called staycation—spending time off at or near home—can also be rejuvenating, especially for employees who explore new places within driving distance of their home, spend more time with family and friends, or simply catch up on sleep as a welcome break from their day-to-day work routine, said Nicholson.
Other Suggestions to Encourage Vacations
Additional ways to encourage employees to take time off include:
- Provide employee discounts for travel, restaurants, hotels, and museum and amusement park admissions to help make vacations more affordable.
- Offer unique PTO opportunities, such as for a birthday or work anniversary.
- Suggest that employees begin a vacation fund and offer to match their contributions up to a certain level.
- To facilitate sufficient coverage of the employee's work, create communication to encourage colleagues to step up and provide support for one another.
- For employees who use up their paid vacation days, consider letting them take unpaid vacation days. "If the business is slow during a certain period, you can encourage employees to take unpaid time off without incurring the costs of paid leave," said Melissa Nunez, HR manager at Nuvi Global in Ontario, Calif.
- Offer an incentive trip to reward employees for their performance, said Katie Moser, marketing director at GoGather, a California-based event planning company. "Incentive trips provide that rest and recovery time that employees need, but they also don't put a financial burden on employees [who seek] a big vacation," she said.
Jan Yager, Ph.D., is a sociologist, life and business coach, and award-winning author whose books include Work Less, Do More: The 7-Day Productivity Makeover, 365 Daily Affirmations for Happiness and How to Finish Everything You Start. For more on Jan, visit https://www.drjanyager.com.