The latest research into the vacation habits of US employees shows that Americans are getting more paid vacation days from their employers, but most are leaving at least some of that time on the table. At the Harvard Business Review, Liane Davey offers some practical suggestions for getting employees to actually use their vacation time:
For some people, not taking vacation is actually a selfish move. They find it incredibly arduous to prepare everything for their absence and conclude that it’s just not worth it. It’s your role to make preparing for vacation as smooth and seamless as possible. Over the long term, establishing backups for each role and codifying processes through knowledge management make it easier for any one person to be away with the confidence that their job will be in good hands. In the short term, provide a template that allows the person to document their ongoing activities or projects and assign someone to cover each aspect. Start this conversation a couple of weeks before vacation so that as many tasks as possible can be wrapped up before the vacation begins. A smooth getaway this year will increase the likelihood that the person will take more vacation next year. …
Although it makes sense to unplug while on vacation, many employees fear the avalanche of emails that awaits them when they return. Another secret to increasing the use and quality of vacation time is to make returning from vacation much less painful. Ideally, schedule a day or a half day for the person to catch up. Leave the other employees covering the role in place as though the vacation were one day longer.
Another challenge is helping employees understand that you really do want them to take time off. To that end, Davey recommends presenting them with the business case for vacation: Show your employees the research linking vacation to improvements in performance and make it clear that vacations benefit the organization as much as the employees themselves.
Conveying positive messages about vacation to employees is crucial, as even with the expansion of paid leave policies, surveys indicate that employees still tend to feel discouraged from taking vacations, partly because they fear the work that won’t get done while they are away and the uncompleted tasks they will have to deal with when they return, but also because their bosses either don’t talk about the importance of vacations or send negative or mixed messages about employees who take time off.
Another step we might add to Davey’s list is to set an example for employees by taking regular vacations yourself. Getting employees to feel comfortable taking time off is as much a matter of organizational culture as one of policy, and employees who see their managers modeling good vacation behavior—taking them, scheduling them thoughtfully and well in advance, avoiding work email while on them, and making sure their teams are prepared to perform productively in their absence—are more likely to feel empowered to take vacations themselves.