Employees need encouragement to take all of their paid vacation. In one large survey conducted last year, more than 75% of workers did not take all of their paid vacation. In the United States, 768 million vacation days went unused by employees in 2019, a 9% increase from 2017. And of those vacation days, 236 were lost altogether, resulting in $65.5 billion in forfeited benefits.
Employees who take all of their paid vacation are happier, derive more meaning from their jobs, and are more productive than those who do not. However, this isn’t as simple as people taking all their vacation days at once. To promote productivity and wellbeing, employees have to take regular vacations because the relaxation benefits fade quickly once we are back at the office.
So as leaders, how can we help people see time off as a strength as opposed to a weakness?
One strategy is to mandate PTO. Shashank Nigam, CEO of the travel incentives company Simpliflying, implemented a mandatory vacation policy where employees had to take one week of paid vacation every seven weeks. If employees were caught sending emails or messaging each other, they would not be paid. Other than a few minor modifications, Nigam is still using this strategy and his employees are thriving.
While some leaders might feel uncomfortable forcing employees to take time off or doing so to the extent that Nigam has, there are other strategies that leaders can use to encourage people to take PTO:
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- Tell employees they are not alone in taking paid vacation. Typically, asking for time off often occurs in private one-on-one conversations. As a result, employees might underestimate how common these requests are. Communicating the prevalence of paid vacation is an easy and powerful way to reduce employees’ fears of appearing unmotivated or not a team player.
- Communicate that you take and enjoy your vacation. Another effective way to normalize paid vacation is for you to celebrate time off as a way to recharge. For example, consider saying something like, “I am planning to take a week of vacation next week. During this time, I am planning to unplug completely so I won’t be able to look at your proposal until next week.” This can set a positive norm that could help employees feel more comfortable asking for time off.
- Clarify when work deadlines are flexible. Employees often think that they cannot take any time off because their deadlines seem to be chronically urgent. However, often the strictness of deadlines is unclear. When facing this uncertainty, employees who feel less secure in their jobs — often female or junior people — might be more likely to err on the side of caution and avoid asking for more time to work on the task and taking vacation. When assigning tasks, managers should clearly communicate deadline expectations.
- Do not email employees while you are on vacation. If you are serious about changing your people’s perspective, do not send emails while you are on vacation. Just don’t do it.
These simple actions can help employees (and you) manage time more efficiently and live happier lives. Stress about time is a major organizational concern — research shows that employees who feel overwhelmed at work are less happy, less healthy, and more likely to quit. As mentioned earlier, this is more likely to affect women (especially during COVID), who typically do more work that is unvalued and take on more demands outside of work.
Encouraging employees to take time off can provide a simple solution to reducing burn out, increasing productivity, and creating more equitable work environments.