How to Get Your Team to Use Their Vacation Time

Evidence is piling up that vacations are good for business. Not only does taking vacation contribute to enhanced productivity but it also immunizes our teams against the toxic negative attitudes that can be contagious in the workplace. So if vacation has such a good ROI, why are people taking less and less of it? In one study, researchers found that employees fear that their manager will think less of them for taking vacation. Yup, they are blaming you (what’s new?). To change this worrisome trajectory, you need to get creative about how to get your team members to take vacation.

First, make the business case. Use a few minutes in a team meeting to share some of the research on the benefits of vacation. A 2015 HBR article by Ron Friedman is a treasure trove of facts about the benefits to reaction time, creativity, and engagement. The article also highlights the risks of foregoing vacation in terms of impulsiveness, poor concentration, and negativity. Hearing these statistics will help disabuse your team of the notion that you’ll think poorly of them for taking their full vacation.

As with anything that matters in the workplace, the key to vacation compliance is to measure it and manage it. Keep track of how many vacation days employees have taken, and give periodic updates. Ideally, work it into performance planning at the beginning of the year. (Research has shown that vacations planned more than a month in advance are restorative, whereas the stress of vacations booked at the last minute can negate the positive impacts of the time off.) If getting employees to use their full vacation allotment is going to be a challenge, make the tracking public to increase the positive peer pressure. You can even use visible symbols (such as stars or checkmarks) to subtly associate completed vacation with success.

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.

But what you do to encourage people to take vacation can all be for naught if you reinforce the wrong behavior during vacation. Be explicit with your team about what you mean when you say “vacation.” Make it clear before the employee leaves that you don’t want them checking email or voicemail. Where possible, exclude them from email recipient lists. Instead, save a list of things that came up during the vacation that you want to cover when they return. If you want to get tough, don’t allow a day to be used as vacation if they’re in contact with the office.

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. (If you use out-of-office auto-replies, set the return date to the next business day to give yourself one day of slack.) If you have flexibility as a manager, allow the person to work from home on the first day back to assist with overcoming jet lag or tackling mountains of laundry. Small gestures that create a little breathing room at the end of a vacation will ensure that you don’t erode the vacation’s benefits by noon on the first day back.

One of those benefits that you’ll want to capitalize on is the time for the brain to focus on other things. This resting phase allows for consolidation of all the information that has been packed in over the year. Changing gears also promotes insight and creativity. Take advantage of that creativity by scheduling an extra-long meeting with the person a few days after vacation. Lavishing them with some attention will reinforce their choice to take vacation and will also provide a chance to have a unique kind of conversation. This meeting is an opportune time to talk about process improvements, challenging stakeholder issues, or career development, all of which will feel more manageable after a vacation.

Even if you try all the proactive strategies in the world, some of your team might still be leaving vacation unused. Don’t ignore it. Make missed vacation a subject for feedback and a topic in development discussions. Try something like, “I notice you have seven unused vacation days. I checked, and this is the third year in a row you haven’t taken all of your vacation. I’m concerned about your ability to bring your best if you’re not getting an opportunity to fully unplug. When are you going to schedule those days?” If that doesn’t work, up the ante: “This is now affecting how I think about your performance and your promotion potential.”

Now, before you start implementing any of these strategies with your team, stop and check your own vacation balance. If you aren’t modeling the use of real, full, disconnected vacations, you can’t expect it from anyone who works for you. If you’re one of the vacation violators, be honest about it. Opening up about why you haven’t been taking vacation and what you’re going to do to change that might help others get there with you.

Vacations are good for your people, for your team, and for your organization, but somehow vacations have become counter-cultural within our hyper-busy workplaces. You have a responsibility to reverse this disturbing trend before it does real damage to your business and your people.

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