Why you should (or shouldn’t) take time off during the holidays

Nearly one quarter of workers won’t take time off this holiday season — here’s why, and what you can do about it.
Feature Holidaytimeoff Panel

Ah, the holidays. A magical time when we can gather with family and friends and enjoy some well-deserved downtime away from the office. Except, a good chunk of workers aren’t taking any time off this holiday season.

A new survey from staffing firm Robert Half shows that 77 percent of U.S. workers plan to take time off over the holidays, which means 23 percent won’t. For those who won’t use vacation time, the reasons might surprise you — 27 percent said there’s nobody to cover for them and 14 percent have too much work to do.

That’s backed up by findings from a 2018 study of 2,000 full-time U.S. employees by West Monroe Partners, a management consulting firm, that shows more than half (51 percent) of employees were uncomfortable asking their manager for time off during the holidays. Roughly one in five said there was simply too much work to be done.

Similar statistics show up in other studies, as well. A 2017 article in Psychology Today addressed “Americans’ Reluctance to Take Time off from Work,” citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed while 90 percent of workers were offered opportunities to take paid or unpaid leave, only 21 percent took advantage of the chance for this break during an average week.

With no downtime this season, employers could find themselves heading into the New Year with a burnt out and disengaged workforce. So, how can employees ensure they’re getting a chance to relax and recharge over the holidays? And how can managers better support their teams this time of year and ensure 2020 kicks off on a high note?

Know how much time off you have available

Before you can even ask for holiday time off, you should be sure you have enough vacation or PTO available to use. It’s also worth double checking your company’s policy on rolling over unused vacation or PTO, as this may be your last chance to use it before you lose it.

Employees should also check the calendars of their co-workers to see what days everyone else has off. There’s nothing worse than taking for granted you’ll get the day after Christmas off, for example, only to find out everyone else already requested it, leaving you as the token person who has to staff the office.

Don’t wait till the last minute

Generally speaking, the earlier you put in your holiday time-off request, the better. While it won’t guarantee your request will be approved, it does help to beat the rush of everyone else’s requests.

Of course, some industry sectors like retail, hospitality, IT, or health care necessitate always having someone “on,” so be willing to compromise. Your co-workers deserve some holiday time off, too, so rather than trying to take the entire week off, be open to taking a day or two off before or after Christmas, for instance, and then if everyone’s schedule allows, grab an extra day or two the following week around New Year’s.

Plan in advance

While it would be great if everyone got the holidays off, that’s obviously not always the case. If you’re planning to be out of the office for an extended period at the end of the year, make sure to plan in advance so projects don’t grind to a halt while you’re away. This includes moving up deadlines and possibly even working longer hours in the weeks ahead of time to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. Also make sure to announce your availability over the holidays so clients and co-workers know if and when you’ll be around in case they do need to touch base with you.

Don’t feel guilty

You’re supposed to enjoy your time off, so don’t worry too much if something does need to wait until your return. The majority of the time an email can wait a day or week to be sent and the world won’t end. Remember, you earned that time off, and you should be able to use it without your manager or co-workers making you feel like you’re slacking off for doing so.

Tips for managers

Understandably, your employees likely all want the same days off around the holidays. You probably do, too. Managing the flood of requests can quickly become overwhelming, especially because you don’t want to upset anyone. Here are some best practices for managers to make the process a little easier for everyone involved:

  1. Alternate major holidays: If your business is open on major holidays, managing vacation requests can be extra difficult. Alternating holidays can be a useful approach. So, if one person gets Thanksgiving off, then they have to work Christmas or New Year’s Day.
  2. Be honest with your hiring practices: If vacation time during the holiday season will be limited, make sure people know that from the very beginning. In some industries, this is obvious: If you are hiring for a hospital, people know that things don’t stop over Christmas. But they may be surprised if you’re an accounting firm. Be honest.
  3. Don’t make assumptions: Some business owners may consider having Jewish employees work the week between Christmas and New Year’s while letting Catholic employees take it off. While this might seem like a logical approach, consider the fact that all employees’ kids have the exact same days off from school, and this may be the only time they can travel to see family. Don’t prioritize requests based on assumptions or when you think employees might desire the time.
  4. Don’t use a strict seniority system: Lots of companies use a seniority-based system when determining who gets the high-demand days off. While this seems logical, it can mean that the same three people get Christmas off every year. That is likely to be demoralizing to the newer staff. Stick with a system that allows everyone an opportunity, such as the alternating system above.

Finally, there may be reasons why you actually don’t want to take time off during the holidays. These can include meeting end-of-year deadlines, working with fewer interruptions at the office, building up some goodwill with colleagues who get to take time off because you’re hanging back at the office, or just avoiding the expense and hassle of holiday travel when everyone else is on the road or in airports. Working during the holidays can be OK, as long as workers are making room in their schedules at other times of the year for a break.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.