If your company is like most U.S. businesses, your employees aren't taking much time off. Despite being offered fewer vacation days than any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), more than half of U.S. workers didn't use all their vacation days in 2017.
This is a big problem, because not taking time off hurts employee productivity, increases burnout, and leads to higher employee turnover. All of this negatively affects your company’s bottom line.
If you want to address the problem of vacation time left on the table, the first place you should look is at your leadership team. Managers set an example for the rest of the company, so it's necessary that they set the tone by taking their vacation time and truly separating from work while they're away. Very few leaders unplug while they're on vacation. According to Project: Time Off, only 14% of managers resist checking in at work while they're on vacation. Senior leadership is even worse – a paltry 7% of senior leaders totally unplug while they're away.
It's important to cultivate a company culture where employees feel supported in taking time off, and it starts with your leadership team.
The benefits of vacation for executives
Beyond the tone it sets for other employees, senior leaders should take time off because it's good for them, and it's good for the company. People simply can't do their best and most creative work without taking mental breaks.
Just as ideas come to people in the shower, they come to people while they're not at work. Many entrepreneurs and artists have had their best ideas while out of the office. The founder of Instagram had the idea for the app's photo filters while taking a walk on the beach in Mexico. Blake Mycoskie was taking time off from working at his startup when he came up with the business idea for TOMS shoes. Lin Manuel Miranda had the idea for the musical Hamilton while on vacation.
Despite all the benefits of time off, 67% of executive and senior leaders failed to use up their vacation time in 2015. Not only does this deny them the benefits of a holiday, but it also signals to the rest of the company that vacation isn't important.
Why don't executives take vacations?
To change executives' behavior, it's important to understand why they don't take time off. Below are some of the most common reasons and some suggestions of things you can do to support your leadership team. There are other reasons, so you'll want to ask your leaders what's holding them back from taking their vacation time.
1. They dread returning to a mountain of work. Senior leaders, which Project: Time Off defines as leaders with titles "comparable to senior vice president, vice president, director, and managing director," say that the fear of returning to a huge backlog of work is the greatest challenge to taking a vacation; 55% of them cited this as a barrier.
For those below senior leadership, the barrier is less overwhelming. Still, 26% of executives, which Project: Time Off defines as the C-suite, presidents and owners of businesses, fear returning to a backlog of work. But, having one in four executives feel reluctant about taking a vacation is still too many.
Nothing inspires dread like facing an overflowing inbox or a pile of issues that need resolving upon returning from a vacation. One way to address this is with an email detox program for employees taking time off. Daimler and Huffington Post are two examples of companies that delete vacationing workers' incoming email. Senders receive an auto-response telling them that the recipient is on vacation and suggesting they resend the email when the employee returns.
On their return, executives have no more email in their inbox than they did when they left. Senders have the chance to consider: Is this email really important enough to send when the recipient is back to work?
2. They fear it will look like they're not committed to their jobs. It's a common fear that being out of the office reflects poorly on performance as an employee. Of those who are concerned that taking time off makes them appear less dedicated – or even replaceable – 61% fail to take all of their vacation time.
Executives are not immune to this fear. A chief financial officer may be concerned about appearing lazy to the CEO. Even a CEO may be concerned that the board of directors will frown on her taking time off.
Vacation-positive messages must come straight from the top – your CEO, board of directors, and anyone else in a leadership role – to ensure employees feel that taking vacation won't count against them. Being neutral or saying nothing about time off isn't enough to counter a perception that "vacation = uncommitted." Your company's leaders must actively encourage vacations, not just with their subordinates but also with each other.
3. They think their workload is too heavy. People who believe their workload is too heavy to take time off are far more likely to have unused vacation time than those who don’t feel this way.
It's a problem for your company if executives believe their workload is too heavy for them to get away from the office. What would happen if they got sick or had to suddenly leave for another reason? Your company would be left in the lurch.
Good leaders know how to delegate and empower their employees to take charge of projects. This not only helps employees learn and grow in their careers, but also ensures each executive's workload doesn't become untenable.
Encourage your executives to mentor and delegate, so they can feel confident handing responsibilities to others while they're away. Consider having each executive at your company draft a written document outlining which employees will take on each of their duties in their absence.
One strategy used by many manufacturing companies that can help ease the above concerns is to shut down the entire organization for one or two weeks at a time. If everyone's out of the office, there's no pressure to check in or send that one important email since no one else is around to read it. Organizations like Adobe, LinkedIn, and TED all shut down for one- or two-week periods every year. Many companies choose to close between Christmas and New Year's Day, giving employees a week-long holiday that only costs the company roughly four days.
There are many other ways to overcome the barriers that prevent executives from taking their vacation time. The important thing is that you check in with your leadership team to see whether they're taking the time off allotted to them, and if they aren't, ask why. It may take some time and a few different approaches to address the array of concerns leaders have with taking time away from work. When your leadership team uses their vacations, they return feeling refreshed and invigorated at work and they lead by example, helping all of your employees feel supported in taking the time off they deserve.