Employee Vacation is a Benefit: We Need to Start Treating it That Way

Employee working on her computer at the pool on vacation
Employee vacation is a high-ROI benefit. But too often it's treated by organizations as a gift rather than a strategy. And doing so negates its value.

What do we mean?

Just look at Project Time Off. The organization's 2018 State of the American Vacation shows the vacation landscape may be improving (by a whole .4 days), but that employees still aren't taking nearly enough time away. Year after year, people leave hundreds of millions of vacation days unused. And many say it was because they were afraid - specifically of repercussions. They feared vacation would negatively impact their jobs or reputations. A full two-thirds said they were unclear about the rules and whether vacationing was truly encouraged...or even advisable.

Stories like these from the New York Post don't help. It makes satire like this from the Onion -"Average American Worker Replaced Within 10-Minutes of Taking Vacation" - feel not so funny.

Losing Out on Employee Vacation ROI

What's to blame? Maybe mixed messages about vacation from employers. The employee handbook may say vacation is encouraged, but worries persist. In 2017, more than a quarter of employees told Project Time Off they believe vacation would make them look less dedicated. And bosses aren't stepping up to say otherwise. "These fears may be unfounded," wrote the Project Time Off authors, "but leaders fail to correct the misconception. This culture of silence has created a vacuum where negative perceptions thrive."

The result is an important program languishing on the shelf. Which is a shame. Vacation, like any carefully chosen program in a total rewards package, is unequivocally good for people...and so organizations.

Studies say employees work better following vacations; they're more focused, committed, and freer with discretionary effort. "The clear majority of managers," reads the Project Time Off report, "agree that vacation improves health and well-being, boosts morale, and alleviates burnout." Need more? An HBR article on the subject offers the very definitive title, "The Data-Driven Case for Vacation."

More important...organizations provide it because they know it offers returns. But it does nothing if it's left in the box. To get the ROI, you have to get people to use it. And to get people to use it, you have to actively encourage them to do so. And that means treating employee vacation like other benefits; communicating it, encouraging it, and reminding people it's there - just as you would any health, family, or wellness program.

How to Treat Employee Vacation like a Benefit

Some suggestions:

Make the policy clear

People are more likely to use vacation if they know the rules.

Advertise it

Newsletters and email blasts advertise wellness and health benefits, why not vacation? The very act of asking "Have you used your vacation?" can communicate permission.

Make it easy to find

Put vacation balances and upcoming accruals in a central place on your portal that doesn't require a scavenger hunt to locate.

Consider all contingencies

If days don't roll over, consider quarterly reminders to avoid a mass-exodus at year end. If there are limits on how many days can be used at one time, make that clear. Employees who bank a month of vacation will be bitter to learn only at the last minute that they can't take it all at once.

Employee Vacation is Meant to Be Used

The sum total is an effective message that says, "Vacation is meant to be used." Something else that's effective - showing people how it's done. Our data shows a powerful predictor of vacation usage is leadership who vacation themselves.

"Managers are company role models," wrote our own Andrea Wicks Bowles.

So when they're gone for two weeks it does more than improve their own dispositions. It gives everyone else permission as well.
Employee working on her computer at the pool on vacation

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