Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Nathan Richardson, SEO specialist at BambooHR
Why is vacation important for your organization? It almost sounds like a trick question, until you start thinking more critically. You can probably rattle off several easy answers, from simply complying with labor laws to reasons like the need for a break, the importance of quality time with family—all of those work-life balance essentials. But when you start looking at the numbers and learning how taking time off impacts things at a business level, you’ll understand why vacation time—and developing the right vacation policy—is critical for both organizations and their people.
The Damaging Effects of Not Taking Vacation
Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
Not only does burnout reduce the satisfaction employees feel in their job, but it can rob them of satisfaction in their personal lives as well. This is likely because as employees spend more hours at work, work comes to define more of their existence, and eventually, personal life and professional life become one and the same.
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic sums it up fairly well with a new term for America’s zealous devotion to overwork: Workism. As modern societies participate less in religious and other social organizations, more of us are turning to the workplace as a source for meaning and purpose in our lives.
But is this healthy for employees? And is an employee’s deeply-rooted devotion to work healthy for an organization? Well, when that devotion goes too far, the answer becomes a resounding no for both parties.
At the organizational level, burnout is a productivity destroyer. While it might seem obvious that burnout would cause an employee to become disengaged from their work, research shows that the link between burnout and engagement is so close that the two concepts are virtually indistinguishable from each other. And when engagement declines, so does the bottom line.
But it’s not just about loss of engagement. The long-term impact of burnout can be devastating to employees’ entire lives, with such symptoms as:
- Sadness, anger, or irritability
- Alcohol or substance misuse
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Vulnerability to illnesses
So, while it’s natural to assume that dedicated employees are a boon for an organization, it’s also wise to consider the possible drawbacks that can come from over-dedication. One of the ways you can prevent the former from turning into the latter is with a well-designed vacation policy.
The Benefits of Vacation
Mayo Clinic goes on to list employees who are at risk for job burnout, and the list includes many descriptors of workism:
- An employee has a high workload, including overtime work
- An employee tries to be everything to everyone
- An employee feels they have little or no control over their work
- An employee’s job is monotonous
- An employee identifies so strongly with work that they lack balance between work life and personal life
If workism leads to burnout, and burnout leads to health problems, disengagement, and poor performance, how do you create a culture that discourages workism in employees?
One sure-fire method is to encourage employees to take vacation. Employees who take time off from work report feeling less stress, less anxiety, and fewer instances of depression. Those aren’t the only positive effects, either; regular vacations are linked to lower risk for heart disease, and the experience of a vacation is shown to have a lasting impact on general wellbeing and a perception of a life well-lived.
Numerous studies show that happier, healthier employees are more productive, which is a great reason for any organization to promote vacation. They’re also less likely to seek another job, and they cost less to employ thanks to higher attendance and fewer health insurance claims. What’s more, when employees take time away, they actually report that difficult tasks seem easier when they return.
How to Create a Vacation Policy That Works
In 2018, Glassdoor reported that Americans only used about 54 percent of their vacation days, and only 28 percent are planning to use all of their allotted vacation in 2019. So, if vacation is so good for employees and employers alike, how come people don’t take advantage of it? And how can you create a vacation policy that encourages people to actually use it?
Why Employees Don’t Take Vacation
While we’ve mentioned workism as a possible cause for taking less time off, employees who underutilize their vacation time may be doing so for any number of reasons. To name a few:
- Financial concerns about the cost of vacation
- Managerial pressure to meet deadlines
- Guilt over the additional workload on coworkers
- Peer pressure to appear dedicated
- A spouse or loved one unable to travel or take time off
- Fear of delayed advancement or termination
- “Banking” PTO for eventual payout
- Health issues
Even when employees do take vacations, they may not be getting the full benefit. Almost half of Americans say they check in on work while on vacation, and over a third say that our constantly-connected culture makes it difficult to stop thinking about work, even on days off.
Creating a Vacation Policy That Encourages Use
In light of all this, creating a vacation policy that all of your employees will use to the fullest may sound impossible. Even so-called “unlimited” vacation policies can backfire, causing employees to take less time off than before. But perfection isn’t required for a successful PTO policy. There are even some proven practices you can use to help ensure more of your people will take—and enjoy—more time off.
Making vacation mandatory: Want to ensure people take vacation? The most straightforward way to do that is simply to require it. This is one way some companies are combating the issue, and it’s particularly effective when combined with unlimited or discretionary vacation policies.
Company closures: More and more, we’re seeing organizations prioritize holiday pay and close their doors during major holidays, like between Christmas and New Year’s, when business may lag and employees tend to be less productive anyway.
Alternative schedule structures: Some companies are adopting 9/80 schedules (eight nine-hour days, one eight-hour day, and one day off in a two-week period) 4/10 schedules (four ten-hour days with one day off per week) or simply giving employees a long weekend every month.
“Zero-contact” policies: As a way to prevent vacation from turning into remote work, some organizations forbid any form of communication while an employee is away. It’s such a hot topic that there are bills being introduced that would make it illegal to contact workers while on vacation or after hours.
Cultural initiatives: One of the most effective ways (in our opinion) to encourage vacation time is to make it clear that it’s not just OK to take time off, but in fact bad behavior not to take it. Making time off a cultural keystone helps reduce the feelings of guilt and stress about job security and advancement that can come with vacation, and makes it less likely that managers will pressure employees into overworking.
Vacation reimbursement: Finally, there’s the idea of rewarding employees for taking time off with a stipend they can only use for vacation. The paid-paid vacation policy at BambooHR is one example of this concept, and while it might seem like a luxury, the benefits are numerous, from dramatically improving the quality of employees’ time away to reducing financial worries for families with limited travel budgets. Not to mention, it’s a great recruiting tool.
We All Need a Vacation
We’re a hard-working nation, and when you combine that work ethic with financial worries, work pressures, and the always-on culture that’s only gotten stronger over the last decade, vacation can seem like an impossible dream for many of us. But when you understand how important vacation is for the health and wellness of people and organizations, one thing becomes clear: if employees aren’t going to take time off on their own, it’s up to employers to help them. In the end, both will benefit.
Nathan is an SEO specialist at BambooHR. He’s passionate about staying a step ahead of the game in the ever-changing world of content marketing. Having spent several years in the small business and startup arena, he loves finding new ways of helping people help themselves with limited budget and bandwidth.