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How to get employees to actually take vacation

Christine Del Castillo
Christine Del Castillo

Former Community Manager at Workable specialized in employee experience, talent brands and our event series, Workable Ideas.

A vacation? What’s that? In 2015, more than half of American workers didn’t use all of their paid vacation days. In comparison, workers in France, Germany and Scandinavia routinely take six weeks off per year. Several studies show that not taking extended time off from work hurts productivity. Not taking vacations is bad for our health, potentially bad for our coworkers’ health (see: presenteeism) and even harms our personal relationships.

For a healthier, happier and more productive workplace, here are some strategies to get employees to actually take vacation.

Show, don’t tell

Two-thirds of American workers receive negative or mixed messages about taking time off from upper management. These actions signal a lack of concern for employees’ overall well-being. Employers must actively counter the concern that workers will be seen as less diligent than their peers if they take a vacation. At Deloitte, upper management sets an example. When leadership take vacation, middle management follows suit and eventually entry-level team members take vacation too.

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Focus on minimums instead of maximums

Instead of focusing on maximum time off, or the newer, flashier “unlimited vacation time,” some companies are mandating a minimum number of vacation days. At Authentic Jobs, the minimum mandatory vacation time is twelve days. At HubSpot, it’s two weeks. At Balsamiq, it’s twenty days. Generally, there’s no formal consequences for not using your mandatory vacation time. But, according to Balsamiq founder Giacomo Guilizzoni,

“It instills an opposite kind of guilt: If I don’t take my 20 days I will set a bad example for my team.”

Make unlimited vacation time work

Unlimited vacation time is a tantalizing benefit offered by 2 percent of companies, mostly niche small businesses and tech companies. However, Bruce Eliot, SHRM’s manager of compensation and benefits, reports that it generally doesn’t encourage employees to take more vacations.

Communication and culture fit are the keys to making an unlimited vacation policy work. Jim Beloisie, CEO at ShortStack, specifically hires “self-reliant, motivated people who have proven time and time again to be both loyal and accountable.” At his company, providing this benefit demonstrates trust: “I’ve learned that when you treat employees like grown-ups, they act like grown-ups.” Finally, a thorough communications plan, including intensive training sessions and Q&As, helped companies like Workday and Riot Games successfully switch to unlimited vacation time.

Offer a vacation bonus

If your company has the means, it may be worthwhile to offer a vacation bonus as part of your employee benefits package. Buffer, Evernote and Veracode give each employee a $1,000 bonus to use on their vacations. Buffer’s data shows that 80% of the teammates who were around when they implemented the policy have collected their bonuses, compared to the 36% who took a vacation in the year before they offered the bonus.

Use tech to do the heavy lifting

Handling lots of paid time off requests can be a hassle for your HR team. A Human Resources Information System (HRIS), is an all-in-one tech tool that simplifies the process for HR and for staff. An HRIS like Namely or BambooHR can also give employees the ability to manage their vacation time easily and on-the-go via a mobile app—a method preferred by 70 percent of employees.

Plan coverage for vacationing team members

An effective coverage strategy will get employees to take vacation, keep productivity on track and ease employees’ concerns about returning to a landslide of work. Using temporary workers, adding shifts to other employees, adjusting project schedules and completing projects ahead of time are all great options for your coverage strategy. Remember that three out of ten workers pass up on vacations because they fear that no one else can do their job. Some vacationing employees may need to prepare for vacation by training another team member to take on their responsibilities.

No workaholics

Beyond paid time off, one effective way to make work-life balance a part of your company culture is to implement processes that guard against overwork. At The RoundTable Companies, interventions such as a life coach are recommended for overworked teammates. And BambooHR has a “no workaholics” policy. The rules: Employees can’t work more than 40 hours a week and must leave at 5pm. “We know that this balance leads to much happier employees, and happy employees lead to great things,” says Ben Peterson, co-founder of BambooHR.

Last but not least, if you’re a culprit with no plans to take time off this year, here’s some food for thought. Despite persistent myths, working 24/7 isn’t a fast track to career success. According to a Project Time Off research study, people who take 10 or fewer vacation days a year are less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years. And if all Americans were to use just one more vacation day, it would add $34 billion in total spending to the U.S. economy. So go on, take a break. Do it for your country.

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