Leaving Money on the Table: Are Employees Too Anxious to Take Their Vacation Time?

Why do Americans collectively leave millions of vacation days unused every year? While some studies indicate that the trend of vacation time use is improving, others cite upwards of 50% of the American workforce still leaving multiple days of vacation time on the table—which essentially amounts to leaving their money in the pocket of their employers.

Many employers are taking steps to encourage employees to take full advantage of their vacation time. They recognize the emotional and physical benefits of time off and also acknowledge it can provide benefits to the company. Some organizations offer a defined number of days from one to more weeks, and others offer unlimited time off to grant employees the freedom of choice around when and how much time they actually take. While these policies may have mixed results in terms of increasing vacation time use, it’s clear that organizations are increasingly aware of employee burnout and the lack of productivity and engagement that comes with it. In some organizations and roles, not taking vacation time can be a security risk, and two consecutive weeks is mandated.

It’s easy for employees to feel that the expectations of maintaining email communication and ensuring projects are on track is of paramount concern for their own success and the organization’s bottom line—when, in fact, their own health and emotional well-being is even more critical. Even when people do plan vacations, it can seem doubly stressful to prepare for their absence in terms of getting colleagues up to speed and making sure nothing falls through the cracks.

One main anxiety-inducing aspect of taking vacation is facing a mountain of emails upon return. To take a reasonable amount of time off and not be tortured by “digging out” of your inbox when you come back takes planning. A crucial first step is to consider timing. If possible, avoid scheduling vacations at a time of year that you know will be outrageously busy for your organization — for example, if you’re a CPA, don’t plan a tropical getaway during tax season.

Garnering support from your manager and peers is also crucial. You will need to plan with your manager who will cover each aspect of your job, what projects might need to wait until your return, and what — if anything — would constitute an emergency that would require contacting you. The team needs to come to agreement about which coworkers will be responsible and held accountable for the work that needs to be covered in someone’s absence. In the week or two before vacation, schedule time for yourself to document active projects and to share the overview with your coworkers. You might start proactively copying the appropriate coworker on your communication for any given project and notifying necessary parties who will be covering for you while you’re out. Laying the groundwork early will help to stem any anxiety leading up to and during vacation time.

Another consideration is the nature of the vacation time. Staycations can be economical and energizing — when handled correctly. A staycation should not be spent secretly logging into work email or worrying about what’s going on at the office. Having engaging activities — whether it’s traveling, spending time with friends and family close to home, or just participating in your favorite hobbies — will help you come back refreshed and rejuvenated. Truly disconnecting and recharging will benefit everyone — yourself, your colleagues, and the organization.

If an organization notes a trend of unused vacation days among its employees, it’s worth exploring whether this is a widespread cultural issue at the company. If many members of a team or division feel unable to take the vacation time they are granted, there may be some other dysfunction at play. Companies need to examine what kind of culture their official policies and unofficial actions encourage. Are the people who work 80 hours a week and never take vacations rewarded, either with something formal, like a bonus, or something informal, like regular praise from senior leadership? Is the organization structured in a way that people are so overwhelmed with their own work that they can’t cover for peers who are on vacation? Depending on what’s driving the issue, different solutions will need to be employed — whether it means requiring people to take vacations, engaging in team effectiveness or time management exercises, or hiring a temp to cover the workload.

Vacation time at many organizations is a benefit that employees have earned, and taking advantage of it will reap far greater rewards than having people continually overworking themselves to the point of disengagement, lack of productivity, and burnout. And for organizations that start everyone at one week vacation and offer two weeks off at five years, it may be time to rethink your concept of employee relations.


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