Employees taking too little vacation time?

“Vacation shaming” has taken on a new meaning, as many employees now need to be forced to take time off. What can management do to foster a vacation-taking culture?
Feature Vacation Shaming Panel

Tired of being reminded to “use your vacation days,” despite work demands and travel limitations? You’re not alone, new research from staffing firm Robert Half shows. Nearly four in 10 workers surveyed (38%) said their employer has encouraged them to take time off, up from 25% three months ago. Of those respondents, 68% said their company has increased communication about the importance of using vacation days.

The term “vacation shaming” emerged a few years ago, and it’s typically meant as being shamed or guilted by a boss or colleagues for taking a vacation or time off from work. Now that more employees are less inclined to use their paid time off, it’s taking on a new meaning: being pressured by your company or boss to use your vacation days.

Even as workers seem less inclined to take their hard-earned PTO, the need may be greater than ever. According to a Robert Half survey of more than 1,000 U.S. office professionals conducted earlier this summer:

  • Summer vacation time shrinking:28% anticipated taking fewer days off in the summer months compared to last year because of COVID-19; only 16% planned to take more time off.
  • Workers have wanderlust:37% planned to save their vacation time for later in the year in hopes of traveling.
  • Burnout may be around the corner:14% felt they have too much on their plate to use vacation time.
  • Saving money is on the mind:22% would like to take a vacation but are spending less due to the pandemic.
  • Self-care is important:20% will take mental health days but not travel for leisure.

In fact, the balance in workers’ PTO banks may only grow in the next year, new research from Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., an insurance brokerage, risk management, and consulting services firm, indicates. According to Gallagher’s annual Benefits Strategy & Benchmarking Survey, which gathered data from 3,921 employers from December 2019 to May 2020, as well as a series of employer pulse surveys between April and July 2020, switching to an unlimited PTO policy may help companies cut costs. In July, 43% of employers had modified or were in the process of evaluating their PTO policy, and continued modifications are likely in 2021.

Adding an unlimited PTO plan can curb employees’ inclination to use all their allotted days each year, as well as eliminate the employer’s need to cash out any balance remaining within the PTO period or upon retirement. Of course, the flip side of that is employees will have more time available for extended vacations or simple mental-health days — if they’re willing to take them.

“Now more than ever, it’s important for workers to take time off to help manage stress,” says Sasha Truckenbrod, Madison branch manager for Robert Half. “The pandemic has created new types of stress that everyone is trying to navigate — between staying safe and healthy, sheltering in place for months, homeschooling children, taking care of parents or other family members, and losing out on many of our daily activities.”

While Truckenbrod doesn’t fault the 37% of workers who are saving their vacation time for later in the year in hopes of being able to travel, she emphasizes it’s important to take some time off now to have a break from work and return refreshed and energized. “Even taking one day off can help tremendously with improving mental health.”

According to Jim Jeffers, regional vice president of Robert Half in Madison, it may be up to managers to cultivate a vacation-taking culture in the office.

“Often, the culture of an organization is set by its leaders’ behaviors,” explains Jeffers. “Managers should lead by example and use their vacation days.”

To that end, Jeffers recommends managers:

  • Create a clear vacation policy and encourage staff to take time off from work;
  • Ask workers to request time off as far in advance as possible, then make sure there is adequate coverage for employees who may be out of the office; and
  • Divide the work of an “out-of-office” staff member among several employees, as well as temporary staff to ensure tasks get done and deadlines are met.

Asked why more managers may now be encouraging staff to take time off than in years past, Jeffers says many employers recognize their staff have been managing work demands alongside family responsibilities for months now. A big reason they are encouraging staff to take time off is to avoid burnout. “While time-off and vacation plans have been disrupted for many people, employers want to make sure their staff are taking care of themselves and disconnecting from work to recharge, even if they have nowhere to go.”

“Many professionals are grappling with heightened career, financial, and health concerns brought on by the pandemic,” adds Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half. “Teams are running lean, and employees have more on their plates. Managers should encourage employees to fully disconnect from work to focus on themselves and family and avoid burnout.”

Sings of worker burnout can include:

  • Incomplete work, decreased productivity, lower quality of work, and mistakes;
  • Missed deadlines, which could also be a sign of too much work; and
  • Negative attitudes, in which case managers should try to find out the root cause — are they feeling overworked or are they dissatisfied with their job or the company?

So, how can workers make their time off as seamless as possible during a stretch of time that’s been all about upheaval?

Get on the calendar. Discuss your vacation schedule with your boss early.

Find a backup. Determine who can handle your tasks while you’re away. Make sure to provide your stand-in with the information needed to perform your duties.

Let others know. Tell key contacts when you’ll be out and who can help them in your absence. Include your point person’s contact information on your voicemail and email notices.

Have a reentry plan. On your first day back, start a little early or clear your morning schedule so you can check messages and refresh your memory on assignments.

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