The stigma of taking time off from work in corporate America is unreal. According to the State of America Vacation 2017 report, employees left 662 million unused vacation days in year 2017 alone despite 96% of American workers saying using their paid time off is important to them.
The fear, guilt and shame of asking for time off is too much to bear, causing employees to sacrifice their health and well-being. Stories have surfaced of employees collapsing or going temporarily blind because they work themselves to levels their bodies fail to cope. This is particularly common among millennials.
Framingham Heart Study, the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease, as well as research from Project Time Off revealed many health hazards associated with not taking a break from work. Identified health issues include: decrease in cardiovascular-health resulting in heart attacks, high blood pressure, high levels of stress, high levels of negative emotions and depression.
Most fears of taking time off work are rooted in false beliefs. Some employees fear it will give the perception of not being committed to their work, or present evidence of them being unambitious. They are afraid of missing out on promotions, falling behind with their work or even worse, losing their job!
These beliefs could not be farther from the truth. According to State of America Vacation 2017 report, employees who forfeit vacation tend to be lower performers, and are less likely to receive a promotion, salary raise or bonus than those taking advantage of their assigned vacation days.
Both Ernst & Young and Boston Consulting Group researched the coloration between taking time off from work and productivity by studying their internal employees. The results were very interesting. Ernst & Young found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved by 8%. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm. BCG found that high-level professionals who were required to take time off were significantly more productive overall than those who spent more time working.
Now that we have highlighted the health hazards as well as negative impact on productivity, let’s talk about changing the mindset to overcome the fear of taking time off work. Calling back on my “Head of HR” days, I would like to offer ten tips for employers and employees to help make fear of taking time off work a thing of the past. The tips below are guidelines and should be taken with some flexibility. Please feel free to adopt and apply what makes most sense to you and your organization.
Tips for employers to address time-off fear:
Tip #1 Change the Perception
Executives and leaders in the organization must make intentional efforts to change the negative perception associated with taking time off from work. They should encourage taking time off and make sure managers do not punish those who do or look down upon them for doing so. If leadership truly believes in the benefits of taking time off work and communicate them effectively then everyone will follow and time-off shaming will disappear.
Tip #2 “Use it or Lose it” PTO Policy
Most organizations have a Paid Time Off Policy, if one does not exist, get with your HR team to put a policy together as soon as possible. PTO policies do not only increase retention and ensure high productivity but can also be used as a perk to attract new talent. “Use it or Lose it” policies are helpful in encouraging employees to take their PTO. If you would like to allow accumulation of days to carry forward to the following year, then have a maximum cap on the number of days that can be carried forward. Finally, consider flexibility in your PTO policy to cater for international travelers.
Tip #3 Flexibility in Business Trips
Allow flexibility in business trips within reason. If employees want to add a day or two from their PTO to their business trip and stay longer in a country or city they are traveling to, then consider allowing it! This will of course depend on how urgently they are needed back at work right after the business trip. But if not, and as long as they cover their own costs of staying longer than what the business trip requires, then there should not be a restriction. It might be the employee’s chance to explore a new place they would have never traveled to had it not been for the business trip. It might also be a good opportunity for your employees to bond with employees or customers where the business trip is taking them.
Tip #4 Limit Time-Off Trading
Do not encourage employees to frequently trade their time-off with one another. This practice is more common in retail and hospitality industries. Exceptions should always be considered, but the point is for everyone to take time off work within the year.
Tip #5 Workload Distribution
Encourage distribution of workload among your team. This could take the form of project work or having people shadowing experts as part of their training and development. This practice will take pressure off employees wanting to take their PTO but worry that taking time off will result in piling work upon their return. It will also ensure smooth completion of long-term projects.
Tip #6 Healthy Succession Plans
Ensure good succession plans are in place for key roles. Plan to have multiple successors, maybe a primary and secondary successor for each key role and train these successors for the role they will fill in the future. That way, you know you have a healthy talent pipeline with trained employees to help with the workload in case of PTO, sick leave or emergency leave.
Tip #7 “Out of Sight, Out of Business” Policy
Employees on PTO should not be bothered. Do not call them or E-mail them while they are on their time off work and fight the urge to copy them on E-mails. If they need to be informed on a particular topic, save the correspondence threat and tell them the full story upon their return to bring them up to speed. Encourage every employee to do the same and treat their colleagues’ PTO with the respect it deserves.
Tip #8 Do Not Pile the Work
Avoid piling work for employees returning from PTO. Do not give them projects or tasks right after their PTO, instead, allow them time to ease back into work. Remember if you followed tips #4 and #5 above, you should have things under control.
Tip #9 Vacation Stories
Promote great stories from vacations, encourage employees to talk about their PTO so others are inspired to take time off themselves. This can also build amazing relationships at work and build stronger teams.
Tip #10 Walk the Talk
Leaders and managers in the organization need to walk the talk and take PTO themselves! They need to set the tone to make the mind-shift towards taking time off from work. When employees see their leaders living the values, the effects will be replicated throughout the organization.
Tips for employees taking PTO:
Tip #1 Plan Plan Plan
Do yourself and favor and plan for your PTO, it will pay off I promise and give you peace of mind while you are away. According to the State of America Vacation 2017 report, 52% of workers who say they set aside time each year to plan out their vacation days take all their time off, compared to just 40% of non-planners. This means you will have to manage your deadlines, distribute your work to your team members and notify your customers of your days off in advance. Tie any loose ends to reduce stress when you come back.
Tip #2 Get Off the Work Grid
Do not take any work electronics with you! No work laptops, work phones, work journals or newsletters. They do not need the time off, you do! Time off work means your time off work. You need to completely disconnect to enjoy your PTO, otherwise what’s the point of going away?
Tip #3 Have Some Buffer Time
If you are traveling out of city, state or country for your PTO, allow a day before your travel to decompose and psychologically disconnect from work. Do not jump onto a plane right after work, if you do, you might be subconsciously taking some of that work with you on vacation. Similarly, allow at least a full day rest back home before you resume work, this will allow you to shift your mindset and refocus on your work.
Tip #4 Take It Easy
Take your first day back at work easy, do not plan meetings or project deliverables right after your return from PTO. Instead take this time to catchup with what had happened while you were gone, clear your e-mails and allow your work mind to shift into drive gear.
Tip #5 Ignore CC’d E-mails
Park E-mails you have been copied on, only tackle correspondence addressed to you personally. E-mails where you are copied to or blind-copied can wait as most of those are on “FYI” basis. Instead, spend time getting up to speed by talking to your team. It will be quicker, more updated and much more efficient.
Tip #6 No Overtime
Upon your return from PTO, do not make the habit of staying behind after working hours to catchup. This includes going to work during weekends. Doing so will deplete all your energy and erase any rejuvenation from the PTO.
Tip #7 Vacation Souvenirs
Bring little memoirs and souvenirs for your desk to remind yourself of the good vacation you just had. Believe me, this will make tacking your tasks easier and will put you in a good mood.
Tip #8 Vacation Stories
Share your vacation stories with colleagues, this will bring good memories for you and will inspire the team to go on vacation themselves. Who knows, you might even discover common likes and dislikes with your colleagues, share tips and advice on travel destinations and build your relationship with your colleagues.
Tip #9 Plan Your Next PTO
Look into your calendar and tentatively block dates for your next PTO to look forward to. It will help you overcome the post-vacation blues.
Tip #10 Feel Good
Well done for planning, managing and returning to work to tackle your tasks! You did it! You just gave yourself the experience of a life-work balance. Just remember to repeat the experience!