Many workers not taking vacation: Survey

Employers can be more supportive to push them out the door
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/20/2011

Three years ago, Nurse Next Door implemented a policy that gave all employees five weeks’ paid vacation. The change was highly popular, said John DeHart, co-founder of the home health-care company based in Vancouver.

“It was our most favoured perk, by far. Employees loved it,” he said.

When the recession hit, the organization decided to return to its previous policy of three weeks’ vacation to start. But there’s still a pretty loose policy for employees, said DeHart.

“I actually don’t really care how much time they take off,” he said. “When our employees need it or want it or think they can take some extra time off, I’m fine with that if they’re an accountable A-player. I know they’re going to get their work done… and not leave the company in a tough spot when they do go.”

But a lot of workers still don’t take their full vacation, as seen in a recent survey of 627 workers — 46 per cent failed to take their vacation time in 2010, according to Right Management.

So what’s holding them back?

During the recession, employers shed employees — which meant heavier workloads and fewer vacations, said Monika Morrow, senior vice-president of career management services at Americas Right Management in Toronto. With the economy still recovering, a lot of employers are reluctant to bring in new staff and many employees are not feeling entirely secure in their positions.

“Given that uncertainty on both sides, there was a reluctance of people to, certainly, take full vacations,” she said.

Recession aside, organizations are more short-staffed than they might have been 20 years ago, said Catherine Connelly, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton. And the way jobs are designed, people are more likely to be working in teams and are more interdependent.

“Not only do you have the impact on your own workload if you’re not there, but you’re also affecting the people around you,” she said.

“There’s a greater feeling of, ‘I can’t just get away without affecting my own workload or the people I work with.’ A lot of people say, ‘There’s no point. If I do go away, I have to get all the work done anyways.’”

Work-related emails are sent day or night and workaholics are often promoted, so people feel they have to keep up with that intensity and can’t find the time to take off, said Cameron Herold, founder of BackPocket COO in Vancouver.

“They’re worried that their boss is going to think they’re not doing a good job,” said Herold. “You see that with people who tend to work long hours as well.”

Why vacation is important

Vancity offers employees three weeks’ vacation to start, with up to six weeks’ vacation based on seniority. People can also purchase up to six additional days of vacation. It’s a benefit that’s viewed seriously and is very well-accepted and encouraged, said Frances King, manager of employee relations at the 2,000-employee company based in Vancouver.

“It really contributes to a healthy work environment by providing employees with the time away from work where they can actually relax and rejuvenate,” she said. “And they will be more engaged in terms of the tasks they’ll be doing when they come back to the office.”

Most employers recognize people need to take vacation from a wellness standpoint, said Morrow. If people are overworked, the result is stress, which can manifest in sick days, higher absenteeism and lower productivity.

“(Employers) do recognize that vacation is essential for work-life balance as well as for general wellness,” she said. “If they’re your high producers, you can’t afford to have them burn out because then you’ve got holes in terms of competency and skills.”

There are also safety issues, said Morrow, as overworked employees can become tired, leading to risks in a manufacturing environment or mistakes if they do detailed work — and that can cost a company.

“It really isn’t to (employers’) benefit to have people work all of their vacation,” she said.

Employees should be given more vacation than they expect, said Herold, who recommends five weeks, including sick days, with a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Then it’s about training employees to use that effectively, by spreading out the weeks, such as two in the summer, one over the winter holidays and several three-day weekends.

“What you end up with is some really good relaxation time, some really good recharging time, some really good de-stressing time,” he said.

Many employers opposed to such generosity are worried about the cost and about work being completed, said Herold. But vacation pay has to be paid regardless of whether an employee is at work.

“It’s not costing any more in dollars (and) the fact your people are more relaxed is going to make them more productive. Your recruiting costs are going to drop because nobody’s ever going to quit, everybody’s going to come and want to work for you because you give five weeks’ vacation, your training costs are going to drop because you’re holding people for longer and you’re retaining them, your sick days are going to drop because people are not showing up when they’re sick because they’re not worried about losing that one precious day.”

Having started Nurse Next Door a few years ago, DeHart was reluctant to take any vacation for fear the company would fall apart. But he realized he couldn’t function at a high level unless he took time off. And he also discovered that by leaving the workplace, the weaknesses of the organization were revealed.

“By going away, that is when you see the broken systems,” he said.

What employers can do

Nurse Next Door, which has 3,500 employees across Canada, is really good at getting people to take vacation, largely because of its culture, said DeHart. If an employee doesn’t feel she can take three weeks off, she’s encouraged to take four-day weeks or three-day weekends. It’s about flexibility and putting the responsibility back onto the person, he said.

“We tell all of our managers, ‘Make your people take vacation.’ Some people put pressure on themselves and feel they can’t do it,” said DeHart.

Managers should have regular discussions with employees, checking in to see that everybody has planned vacations for the year, said Morrow.

“(It’s about) making it high on the radar for employees: ‘You need to do this,’” she said. “It’s just good management skills — you stay on top of what your employees are doing.”

Many people still believe they’re the only ones who can do their jobs so managers have to have a realistic discussion with them about their skill set and where they fit in the organization, while encouraging them to be more productive by taking the time off, said Morrow.

“From a training standpoint, an organization should never have just one person with all the knowledge to do that role because if anything ever happened to that individual or they found another opportunity and left within two weeks, the organization is really in a bind. So it behooves any organization to ensure there is backup, so employees can’t use the excuse or rationale they’re the only ones who can do that job.”

Vancity starts scheduling vacations early in the year so people have enough time to figure out dates and there’s no mad scramble in the fall, said King.

“Within HR, we’ll do some proactive coaching with our managers… to ensure that they’re having conversations with their employees about ensuring they are scheduling appropriate time off for good work-life balance, et cetera.”

It’s about building a culture that encourages vacations but it has to come from the CEO down, said Herold. If the leader is a workaholic who talks about work-life balance, the disparate views won’t jibe.

“If you’re a supportive leader and supportive company, trying to help your people get better lives, then all of a sudden they’ll want to take vacation,” he said. “Some of it is just creating that work-life balance environment, letting people know what their priorities are for the quarter and the month, not pushing them that hard.”

HR could be doing its best to promote vacations but if a direct supervisor is never taking vacation and getting promoted, there’s an implicit message, said Connelly.

“Culture will overrule any policy that’s just on paper,” she said. “A better practice would be for the manager to have a very transparent policy, to sit people down and say, ‘Let’s all take our vacation time but we’ll plan it out, so we don’t overlap too much or it matches our busy times or we co-ordinate a little bit better so we can handle the redistribution of the workload.’”

And while vacation’s a lovely way to decompress, there’s also the stress of going back to work, said Connelly.

“The real trick is to have the workplace that’s not so stressful in the first place.”

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