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If you own a company, you may think of paid time off as a perk you offer your employees. The more accurate perspective, however, is to think of it as an investment you make in your business that pays dividends. 

That said, if you don’t encourage your employees to fully disconnect while on vacation, you won’t receive a return on this investment. Your team members won’t get the benefit of their vacation, either, and an exhausted workforce hurts your bottom line.

So it makes business sense for you to take steps to ensure that you’re not inadvertently creating a hostile vacation culture for your team or organization.


What is a hostile vacation culture?

A workplace with a hostile vacation culture is one in which leaders don’t actively encourage their team members to take vacation.

Some companies seem to take a “neutral” position on employees using vacation time. But staff may interpret the silence on the subject as meaning the company actually discourages time off. 

Another hallmark of a hostile vacation culture is one in which leaders themselves don’t take vacation. What leaders do models the expected behavior for the team, so even if a leader says, “You need a vacation,” but isn’t taking time off for themselves, the employee is likely to believe that the leader doesn’t really mean it or will reflect poorly on the employee if they do take time off.

Companies that offer paid vacation time but don’t actively encourage their team members to fully disconnect while on vacation also have a hostile workplace culture.


Why are workers neglecting to take vacation?

First let’s look at why so many knowledge workers refuse to leave their work behind, even for a short while. A 2023 Pew survey revealed just how pervasive the hostile vacation culture is in the US. The survey included 5,188 adults working full or part-time. Researchers found that:

  • 49% of workers are afraid to take vacation time because they fear falling behind at work;
  • 43% say they feel guilty that co-workers have to take on additional work while they are away;
  • 19% feel that taking paid vacation time will hurt their chances of promotion;
  • 16% fear they will lose their jobs if they take vacation; and
  • 12% said their managers discourage them from taking time off.

If you’re a leader in your organization, why should you care? Isn’t it better to have more of your workforce actively pursuing your company’s goals at all times? If your team members regularly take vacation, aren’t you losing productivity? 

While you might think the answer to these questions is an emphatic “Yes!”, the truth of the matter is quite different. Let’s take a look.


The Value Of Vacation

Paid vacation time gives workers the opportunity to recharge, refresh, and refocus without financial consequences. Taking time off makes us more productive, not less. The research confirms that taking vacation is great for our physical and mental health.


Paid time off helps us relax and recharge.

One small company did an experiment and forced its employees to take vacation. The result was clear increases in creativity, happiness (mood), and productivity.  

Time off also makes us more productive.

A 4-year study by the Boston Consulting Group found that taking paid time off can actually make employees more productive when they return to work. In addition, the study found that workers said that work tasks were easier to complete after vacation than they were before. This contributed to workers being happier and more satisfied with their work.

An Ernst & Young study showed that for every additional 10 hours of vacation time that employees took, their year-end performance improved 8%. Further, those who took vacations more frequently were less likely to leave the firm .

Taking vacation is good for our health.

In a study of 749 women, researchers found that those who took vacation less than once every six years were eight times more likely to develop heart problems compared to those who went on vacation twice a year. 

Going on vacation can also lower your chances of dying from coronary heart disease, including lower blood sugar levels and improved HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.

The Cost Of Thinking About Work While On Vacation

We are successful because of wisdom, experience, and the unique perspectives we bring to our jobs. But our supply of energy and creativity is not limitless. 

If we set aside part of our vacation time to check in with work, we’re not getting enough distance to regenerate all those important qualities that make us successful in the first place. 

A Glassdoor Employment Confidence Survey of 2,000 workers found that:

  • Three in five employees still do some work while on vacation; 
  • 25% of workers on vacation were contacted by a coworker; 
  • 20% were contacted by a supervisor about a work-related issue; and
  • 17% admitted difficulty not thinking about work while on vacation. 


Do your team members experience anticipatory stress?

Researcher Bill Becker talks about “anticipatory stress,” which occurs when a knowledge worker might receive an email during off-hours. Whether, in fact, the worker does receive an email is beside the point. If a team member might receive a message while on their vacation, they’ll stay in a heightened sense of alert. While they’re skiing or laying on the beach, part of their brain will still be on work.  

When we contact our colleagues who are on vacation, we are engaging their minds on business, which effectively thwarts their opportunity to get distance to recharge their creativity. 

You might be thinking that they have control over whether or not they check their messages, and you’re right. It’s a fair point. The responsibility ultimately lies with the vacationing employee. Their work can only intrude on their vacation time if they allow it to. 

However, the behavior of everyone in the organization contributes to the culture. And when the culture of the organization creates pressure to work while on vacation, it’s hard to resist that. So yes, it’s ultimately up to the individual employees to decide how they will use their vacation time, but it’s also important—for the leaders especially, but also all staff—to contribute to a vacation-friendly culture instead of a vacation-hostile culture.


7 Ways Leaders Can Encourage Time Off

A young woman holds hands to her temples while others hand her papers for work

If you’re a leader, you can help your organization and team dismantle a hostile vacation culture. Here’s how:

1.Take all of your vacation time.

As a leader, it’s important for you to model the behavior you want to see. Go ahead and take all of your vacation time, and don’t be covert about it. Talk about your upcoming vacation and share photos when you return. This will send the message that taking time off is a valued priority for your business.


2. Explicitly define what you expect from employees on vacation.

Define vacation at your company in a way that allows your team to have a clear understanding of what you expect from them while they are taking time off: absolutely nothing.


3. Support team members to fully unplug while on vacation.

Allow team members to fully disconnect from work obligations while on vacation. Failing to support vacation time is really very close to discouraging vacation time. Make it clear to members of your team that it is strongly encouraged to avoid contacting colleagues while they are on vacation. 


4. Designate a colleague for backup.

Encourage your team members to choose a trusted and experienced colleague to take over their duties while they’re away—and leaders especially should model this behavior. This will provide an incentive for managers on vacation not to “check in” with work while they’re away, because that may be perceived as their having no confidence in the staffer. 

Also, this experience for the staffer of being temporarily “in charge” gives an opportunity for growth, and can be a good confidence-builder.  


5. Disperse incoming work.

No one wants to return from vacation to find an overwhelming pile of work. In fact, the stress of thinking about returning from work often prevents people from taking their full vacation in the first place. What can you do? Disperse incoming work among several other staffers, so the team member on vacation can come back to a clear plate.

Also consider a “Mail on Holiday” option, which offers employees an opportunity to have their messages deleted while they are away.


6. Allow a buffer with the “out-of-office” message.

Encourage employees to use the “out of office” message beginning one day before they actually go on vacation, until one day after they return. This gives them a buffer to allow them to tie up loose ends before they leave, and ease back into their work routine when they return from time off.


7. Provide workflow management training.

Help employees acquire good workflow-management skills, so they are able to set their own limits around their vacation time, and better understand their priorities and deadlines. These are not skills taught in school.  


Downtime And Vacation Time Are Important

Being more productive and efficient means making the best use of your resources. Productivity ultimately suffers when we fail to use our time off, or we stay connected to work during vacation time. We need time to recharge and re-energize to replenish the creativity, motivation, and innovation, the qualities that help us achieve our most significant results at work.

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