Why 'Vacation-Shaming' Hurts You More Than Your Employees

A culture where employees don't feel free to take a vacation has a lot of negative implications -- including the company's very survival.
Why 'Vacation-Shaming' Hurts You More Than Your Employees
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Shannon Kuykendall used to be the sales team assistant at a company where she supported 10 other people, all of whom put in 60 hours a week. The team, she said, was understaffed and over-worked. Then the company's sales declined and the team pulled together to bring those sales back up.

“But their efforts were lost because you could see how tired they were,” Kuykendall told me, of her co-workers. "We were all tired, and we all needed a break.

Related: Is 'Paid Time-Off' Actually Possible?

“After my first year, I was due my first one-week vacation,” she said, continuing her story. “I was so ready for it, but I heard stories about others putting in their vacation requests and then being made to feel guilty for taking the much due and deserved time off. One day, I jokingly said, ‘That's a wrap, it's vacation time.’ The sales team manager shot me a look and shook his head.”

Subsequently, employees began losing their jobs, and the company shut down completely. “I often wonder if it was because people were burned out,” Kuykendall said.

Today, she's CEO of her own business, Up Automation, in Cambria, Calif., where she's made vacation an important part of the company culture. “Every three months, I take a week to myself and digitally detox," she said. "The first three days are hard; then, after that, it's smooth sailing. All I know is that when I take care of myself, I can better take care of my clients and my team.”

Kuykendall's tale of woe from her earlier work situation is hardly unique: According to the 2016 Alamo Family Vacation Survey of 1,500 U.S. adults, 59 percent of millennials and 41 percent of older employees feel a sense of shame when they take time off.

And that's terrible, of course: A workplace where employees don’t feel that they can take a vacation has a lot of negative implications, especially for the company. In fact, that scenario might actually lead to the company going under,as happened with Kuykendall’s former employer.

Here are some ways vacation-shaming hurts employers more than employees and why it should be avoided:

Poor employee retention

When employees feel constantly burned out, they eventually leave. This puts stress on the company because it has to keep finding and training new employees. That makes it difficult for everyone to be productive.

Related: Unlimited Paid-Time Off? Seriously? How to Make It Work.

Gary Beckstrand, vice president of O.C. Tanner Institute, in Salt Lake City, described an acquaintance who worked for a smaller company where long hours and lots of work travel were common. “While she was very passionate about her work -- in fact, she says she loved it -- after three years and only one very short vacation mixed in, she was completely burned out and she left the company,” Beckstrand told me.

“You lose great experience and talent with employees who leave, and it costs the company money to bring in and train a new person.”

Difficulty recruiting

If an employer doesn't have a competitive vacation-days policy, job candidates will often just drop out of the interview process. This can mean missing out on top talent.

“I worked for an HR tech company that had a strict one-week-per-year vacation policy for your first five years,” Mike Seidle, co-founder of WorkHere, in Indianapolis, told me. “The result was that many of the best software engineers would just say no to us in the interview. Of those that started, many would quit from disputes about taking extra vacation time.”

High absenteeism

“I noticed my staff taking a lot of 'sick' time even though they didn’t appear to be ill,” Greg Nickolson, managing partner of Technology Solutions in Tucson, Ariz, told me. “Performance was sub-par, meaning efficiency and productivity was noticeably lacking. After some research and discussions with a few staff members, I concluded that they were just burned out.”

Since sick days aren’t planned, maintaining productivity and covering employee workloads becomes difficult. This creates a cycle where employees become even more burned out because they have to carry others' weight.

Merely offering paid time off as an employee benefit is not enough to reduce burnout. Here are five ways to ensure employees take their vacation time:

1. Give employees financial support. 

One reason employees don’t go on vacation is a lack of money. Realizing this, Nickolson launched 401(play), which allows employees to set aside money from each paycheck into a vacation savings account.

“After the first year of introducing 401(play) into our culture at Technology Solutions, I noticed a remarkable difference in the overall attitude and performance of staff members that elected to participate,” he said.

Tip: In addition to allowing employees to withhold money from their paychecks to save for their next vacation, your company might consider an employer contribution. Nothing says commitment to a policy quite like money.

Heather Whaling, founder of Geben Communication in Columbus, Ohio, agrees. She implemented a mandatory vacation policy called “Inspacation.” All employees are required to a take a minimum of one consecutive week out of the office at some point in the year. “As a sign of our commitment to this policy, Geben provides each eligible employee with $250 to use during their Inspacation,” Whaling told me.

Even the smallest bit can help boost morale with employee vacation time. “Last year, one of our team members used their Inspacation spending money to treat her family to a horse[back] ride during their annual beach trip,” she said.

Tip: Once your company has determined an amount and policy, devise a communication plan to roll out the new opportunity to employees. Generate excitement and encourage employees to take advantage of the stipend by sharing the message directly from senior leadership.

2. Make vacation scheduling a group effort.

“Make vacation planning a team exercise,” suggested Ricardo Pellafone, founder of Broadcat in Dallas. “At Broadcat, we do this at the beginning of the quarter, planning when each person will take off a full week. Forcing everyone to commit to a full week each quarter makes sure that people actually take real time off -- not just a long weekend here and there."

Tip: Ask leaders to pull teams together on a quarterly basis to encourage employees to schedule vacation time. Create a calendar of the committed time off for each team member, so everyone has visibility and can help cover the workload when each person is out of the office.

The established vacation selections don’t need to be firmly set in stone, but getting them onto the calendar encourages employees to take the time they need to refresh.

3. Make the request yourself.

“At Lever, every few months, the employee experience team sends each manager a list of the people on their team and the time they've taken as PTO,” Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer at Lever, in San Francisco, told me. "This is used to flag people who aren't taking enough vacation, and gently prod them to book more if they haven't already planned to do so.”

Just such prodding recently happened to an associate marketing manager at Lever, who was both surprised and delighted at the reminder. “It took me by surprise!" the associate told Srivivasan. "I didn't realize you were paying attention, and I certainly didn't think you would ever tell me to take more time!”

Tip: Keep track of employee vacation time on a quarterly basis. If the list of employees not taking vacation becomes unmanageable, personally reach out to those not leveraging their PTO. Ask team leaders to convey the message. Employees feel more inclined to take time off when the request comes directly from leadership.

4. Close the office.

When the office is closed for a few days, all employees, whether they go out of town or not, will be forced to take a break from work.

For example, companies like Thrivatize in Park Ridge, Ill., shut down entirely during the week between Christmas and New Year's.

“When I found out about the policy, part of me was angry that that was a mandated part of my five-week vacation,” Suz O'Donnell, president of Thrivatize, told me. “But once it happened, I realized that it truly forced everyone to take a real vacation. No one was replying to emails, no one was in the office; and actually, you would get in trouble if you were working during this time.”

The results? "People came back in January refreshed and ready to work. There was no sense of guilt in enjoying time with family, friends or vacationing,” she said.

Tip: Whether mandated time off occurs during the winter holidays or some other time of the year, think about shutting down your entire company. Instruct employees to conduct no work during this time. It’s like rebooting a computer; every employee will come back more focused and aligned after taking the time to reset.

5. Lead by example

“The boss sets the tone for how to handle time off,” Christina Kori, marketing manager at BELAY, in Atlanta, told me. “CEOs who refuse to take time to recharge are sending a message that they don’t trust their team to get the job done in their absence.”

Tip: Take all allotted vacation -- a full week at a time if possible -- and avoid checking in with the team the entire time. Go off the grid so employees know not to reach out. This makes your time off a true vacation, and employees will recognize it.

Related: Why Generous Paid Time Off Policies Pay Off for Employers

When employees see executives taking time off for a true vacation, they feel confident in taking time off and being unresponsive during that break, as well. The results? A happier and healthier workforce.

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