CEOs to employees: Take a vacation, already

Andaz West Hollywood
Lengthy getaways are becoming less common, a study says. (Image: Andaz West Hollywood)

CEOs are increasingly touting the importance of employees taking time off, but the message may not yet have reached the rank and file among U.S. workers, who are taking only half of their eligible vacation time per year. The reasons point to a need to change the work culture within companies, according to one human resources expert.

“Employees should take advantage of available vacation time for a variety of reasons. In today’s very fast paced environment, the idea or concept of work life balance has slowly been shrinking away and employers have recognized that,” said HR Florida State Council Vice President Jennifer Gunter. “And with so many competing priorities workers face, it’s time to evaluate internal time-off policies and create a culture in which employees are encouraged to take their vacation time as opposed to leaving multiple days, weeks or hours on the table. By successfully promoting and encouraging employees to utilize vacation time, employers can combat low productivity, employee burnout and improve employee morale.”

Vacations have devolved from getaways to brief respites where the office is just a phone call or a text away, a survey said. According to a 2017 Glassdoor survey the average U.S. employee only took about half (54%) of his or her eligible vacation time/paid time off in the 12 months prior to the survey.

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And more Americans (66%) today report working when they do take vacation compared to three years ago (61%).

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Of employees who receive vacation/paid time off, 9 out of 10 (91%) report taking at least some time off in the last 12 months, up from 85% in 2014. Over the same time period, 23% reported taking 100% of their eligible time off, while another 23% of employees reported taking 25% of their eligible time off (both down two percentage points from 25% in 2014). Nine percent reported taking no vacation or paid time off at all.

Despite slightly more employees taking vacation time overall, it doesn’t necessarily mean more are getting away from work. Fewer employees who take vacation/paid time off report being able to completely “check out” while they are on vacation, while more than one quarter (27%) are expected to stay aware of work issues and jump in if things need their attention while they are away, up from 20% in 2014. More than 1 in 10 (12%) employees who take vacation/paid time off are expected to be reachable, deliver work and/or participate in conference calls etc. while on vacation (compared to 9% in 2014).

It's a situation that routinely raises eyebrows across the pond, where vacations are practically enshrined in the work culture. "It's not that Americans do not want a vacationit's that they are afraid to take it," an article in The Guardian noted back in September.

The article cited a U.S. Travel Association survey that said that 28% of workers passed on taking a vacation because they didn't want to be seen as slackers, but as dedicated employees instead. And another 40% didn't want to deal with the pile of work that would be waiting for them when they returned from taking several days off. 

With the surveys beginning to pile up, some CEOs are taking the situation in hand to make sure their employees get the rest they need and recharge.

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Employees should feel comfortable requesting time off, said Mike Flaskey, CEO of Diamond Resorts. “Leadership can promote this type of culture by encouraging team members to plan their vacations early and let their teams know if they’re thinking about taking time off, so everyone can prepare,” Flaskey said. “It’s easy to be consumed with work emails or phone calls even when on vacation, but if teams are well-equipped and updated beforehand, it’s also easier to unplug knowing everything is under control. Taking time for oneself to recharge is crucial not only for the individual, but the company’s productivity overall.”

“The importance of restoration is rooted in our human physiology,” said Susan Kuczmarski, co-founder of Kuczmarski Innovation. “Employees are not able to expend energy continuously. Rather, it is best to pulse between spending and recovering energy. Vacations allow us to restore, re-energize and re-generate—so we can begin fresh again, ready to positively impact our work agenda.” 

And, while taking time off may be counterintutive for many workers, and is at odds with the prevailing work ethic in many companies, “it renews our energy level—and this makes us able to do our work more efficiently and effectively,” Kuczmarski said. “Energy is finite, but renewable. Vacations are not wasted time, but prescriptions for maximizing our productivity. They are entirely necessary.”“I want all of my employees to take vacations and when they do, I want them to turn off I don’t bother them,” said John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company. “I want them to have fun and relax.  Vacations are crucial to overall health and creativity.”

Vacations are not only essential, but also more important than ever to corporate productivity, given the influx of millennials in the workforce and their priority on work-life balance, said Rick Miller, principal of Being Chief. “On an even broader scale, numerous studies by the American Psychology Association and others clearly show the myriad benefits of taking time off. For employees, vacations are proven to alleviate stress, cut risk of cardiovascular disease, and boost sleep. For companies, this means lower health costs and turnover from employee burnout, as well as greater engagement and productivity.”