Despite the benefits, people may be reluctant to take time off because of a lack of workplace support
A few years back, Montridge Advisory Group began offering employees three weeks’ vacation to start.
“The most important reason is because if [employees] don't take vacations, they suffer from burnout… we've experienced that historically before,” says Judith Mewhort, managing partner in Vancouver.
And it’s not an issue that has disappeared with the pandemic, she says.
“In some respects, I think it's worse when they're working from home. Because I think that the lines between work and home have been blurred. And so people are probably in many cases working longer hours than they would if they had a commute… or they have children that are also needing their attention.”
How to encourage vacations
From the get-go, culturally, vacations should be an important part of the employment deal, says Mewhort.
“When you hire somebody and you explain total compensation, that's part of what you're explaining,” she says, along with salary and other benefits.
Then it’s about reminding people to take time off regularly, she says.
“We don't let people carry vacation over unless it's a preplanned specific reason [such as] they want to take an extended vacation for a special birthday or something like that… otherwise, they all know that they have to take their vacations throughout the year. And we do remind people regularly, and we do talk about vacations.”
And while travel has been drastically limited with the pandemic, people are still encouraged to vacation – preferably more than a few days here and there or long weekends, says Mewhort.
“You need you need to take consecutive days off so you can decompress.”
To that end, the firm has written a blog with ideas on places people can visit and things that they can do, she says, “because sometimes I think they think there's nowhere to go.”
Leadership sets the tone for well-being
It’s also important for leaders to take time off, says Mewhort.
“Leaders have to be seen when they take time off to actually disconnect. Sometimes it's hard… I will check my email or I will say, ‘If it's important, you can reach me.’ But, for the most part, I try not to. I don't answer clients when I'm on vacation. If it's truly something important, then my staff can reach me, but I don't expect the staff to check in at all -- you're gone, you're on vacation.”
Of course, culture and leadership make a huge difference in well-being in general, while toxic leadership can be one of the biggest contributors to ill health, says Arla Day, professor of occupational health psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
“By extension, they can impact in several ways the level of burnout people are experiencing prior to vacation; they can minimize or maximize the impact, or influence how people are doing during the vacation.”
That begins with language and the way vacations are discussed at work.
“If we say, ‘Sue is going to be away for two weeks so that's going to be just a total mess here,’ what we're doing is almost blaming Sue,” says Day. Instead, it should more like “This is great, Sue's off, she's doing a tour around Nova Scotia and is visiting family so that's great, and we look forward to her coming back in two weeks, rejuvenated, and with a lot of great stories for us.’ So [it’s about] making it visible, as a benefit for everybody, and depending on the culture of their organization, you can share it in different ways.”
On a cautionary note, researchers have found that while burnout can decrease significantly over vacation, it can also return just a few days later, she says.
“They call it like the fade effect, so there's a gradual increase three days after [vacation]. The burnout levels had increased again and by three weeks, they were back at pre-vacation level. So, there's a positive effect, but it can be short lived,” says Day. “The question is... how can you extend those positive effects?”
Providing support for people to take vacations
For one, it’s important to make a person’s absence visible to staff, she says.
“This is just good business practice, so everybody knows when everybody's going to be away. So that ensures good communication, coordination among your staff, and knowing who's covering and what's happening there. But it also makes it visible that… it's something that's celebrated by the organization, or it’s encouraged.”
Aside from the psychological support of leadership, there’s the physical aspect of doing the job and the physical workload, says Day.
“If I go on vacation for two weeks and nobody is covering my work, then I come back to basically two weeks of work that I have to get caught up on, as well as my own job. That's not being very respectful of me.”
Plus, people on vacation will be anticipating the return to work and unforeseen problems they have to deal with, she says. So it’s critical to have supports, and that can mean something like a triage system, where one person does at least part of the vacationing worker’s job, and another can deal with any emergencies that arise.
“It's about working together, talking as a group beforehand, and then that makes it smoother for everybody, and everybody can benefit from that.”
Some organizations also hire part-time or temporary staff to cover for employees who go on vacation, says Day.
“They just have one person coming in as a roving [worker] trying to take over and providing some support. So that is essential. “
Employees at Montridge Advisory Group always have a backup when they go on vacation and provide the contact info of other people in the office who can help if needed, “so nobody is left hanging,” says Mewhort.
It’s also important for the employee on vacation not to come back to any crises.
“Somebody else should have taken care of that urgent matter for you.”
Plus, people often come back from vacation and end up spending a day weeding through their emails, she says.
“There should be somebody that can take that work, or at least the urgent work, from somebody, wherever possible, so they don't come back to 800 emails.”