Vacation days are rarely used by Americans, but they hold immense benefits for a business's culture and employee health.
Americans don't get much vacation time.
For instance, the average employee with five years at a particular company receives about 12 days of paid vacation, compared to the mandatory 20 days for members of the European Union. After living in Europe for six years, I can attest that people take that vacation as well. In fact, our first summer here my husband's boss announced he was going diving in the Maldives—for four weeks. He didn't even take his laptop.
Did the department wither without the boss's leadership? Were there terrible consequences for him when he returned after four weeks of being out of pocket? Absolutely not. Everyone considered it normal behavior. Everyone but us, the Americans.
Why is it that Americans not only don't have the same amount of vacation as other countries, but we don't take what we do have? That's right, according to a recent survey by Korn Ferry, even executives—the bosses—are not taking the vacation their companies have granted them.
What's the point of negotiating a fabulous number of vacation days if you're not going to use them? While 83 percent of executives plan to take vacation time, 50 percent of them will check in with the office multiple times per day while they are "relaxing." And that leaves 17 percent of people—who undoubtedly have vacation days allotted to them—that are not planning on taking time off.
This sounds like it's great news for businesses. After all, you pay your employees the same out of money whether they use their vacation days or not. So companies get free days of work from people who forgo vacation. If you're the company owner, what's not to like about this?
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This is a real thing. Your employees can get be so dedicated to the job that they don't take time off. When they don't take time off, their brains never get a break. When their brains don't get a break, their ability to come up with new and innovative ideas are threatened. Even their ability to do repetitive and boring tasks become compromised. You can work without a break for a good long time, but then you can't go on. Smart companies don't want their employees to reach the point of burnout. They want employees to receive breaks throughout the year.
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Pressure From the Boss
When executives aren't using their vacation—or are constantly checking in on their days off—employees feel like they have to forgo vacation time, or only leave for critical things like weddings and graduations. As a result, even the days off are stressful, meaning this pressure from the boss can result in even worse performance. Bosses that have a higher tolerance for work, or have more invested in the business and so want to be at work, can influence their employees to do the same.
The problem is, a business owner gets more money the harder everyone works but the employee isn't likely to see a financial reward. They are just working hard because they feel like the boss expects it which makes is critical that bosses take time off so that employees are comfortable taking vacations as well.
Many companies—especially small businesses—operate lean. This means that you and only you know how to do your job. When you're not there, the work isn't getting done. So, when you get back, there's a huge stack of work to do and your coworkers and clients are angry that you've been away.
Either that or you're spending your nights in the hotel room with your laptop while your family enjoys themselves at the pool. Smart businesses do at least a little cross-training so that Bob can cover for Sue when she's out, and in return, Sue will cover for Bob.
Misleading Job Offers
Vacation days are part of any employee's compensation package. If you offer two weeks of paid vacation, what you are essentially saying is "we'll pay you $X for 50 weeks of work, paid out over 52 weeks." But when you don't allow your employees to take a vacation (either through denying requests or through pressure), what you are doing is lying in your job offers.
You really intend to have them work for 52 weeks, even though that's not what you promised. If companies did this with any other area of compensation, employees would rise up in rebellion. It is intentionally misleading. Employees should fight for their vacation time, but they often don't. Instead, they just silently start hunting for a new job and leave.
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Time to Force Vacation
One of my very first jobs was working for a small credit union. In order to detect fraud, employees were required to take 5 consecutive days off each year. No laptops, no email, no phone calls, no contact with the office. This applied to everyone—from HR assistant (me) to the CEO to the tellers and the security guards.
Everyone had to do this. It was awesome.
No one felt guilty taking their week off. No one was punished for not calling in, in fact, they were punished for calling in. Your business will be better off if you implement real vacations.
Now, not everyone wants to use a huge chunk of vacation all at once. Some people prefer a bunch of long weekends to one week away, but it should be company policy that everyone take a significant amount of time off without an obligation to check in with the office.
Culture is very important in today's workforce. A good culture will attract good employees. Make sure your company has a culture of vacation usage and you'll get better people and everyone will be happier.