When Erich McLane, a South Florida staffing recruiter, contemplates summer vacation, he takes the appearance of job dedication into consideration. This year, he likely will extend a weekend and leave some of his allotted two weeks unused, as he did last year: “I’m trying to make myself look like a better employee to the owner … in my mind, he’s paying attention, but I’m not sure it’s true.”
McLane is one of a growing number of American workers leaving vacation time unused, fearful over what their bosses will think if they take time off. Now a new study yields insights into what managers are thinking — and reveals it may not be what their staffers assume.
A new report released this month, “The Mind of the Manager: What Your Boss Really Thinks About Vacation Time,” found 80 percent of managers of the 500 U.S. managers surveyed believe that using vacation time is important to maintaining team energy levels and making employees more productive. Not only do managers see value in vacation: Sixty-nine percent even say that their interactions with employees encourage taking time off. The newly released report was produced by the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes travel to and within the country.
But employees aren’t hearing that same message.
Researchers found that 67 percent of employees said they’ve heard either nothing, mixed messages or negative messages about taking vacation time. In some cases, the lack of communication made workers afraid to take their paid vacation days, worried that their workload will pile up and concerned that bringing up vacation will make them appear less committed.
“It’s very important what signals a manager sends,” says John de Graaf, president of Take Back Your Time, a nonprofit trying to reduce overwork in America. “Often, because managers don’t send any signal at all, their employees tend to fear the worst.”
Still, assumptions about managers often miss the mark.
When an employee asks for time off, managers say their first thoughts are how that person’s responsibilities will be covered, what tasks need to be done in advance and, depending on the employee’s level, whether that person will be reachable if needed.
“I do a mental assessment,” says Stuart Chase, president and CEO of HistoryMiami, Miami’s historical museum with 35 employees. Chase looks at the needs of the museum, factoring in staffing requirements for exhibitions or special projects: “I just want to make sure we have coverage.” At the same time, he encourages his workers to take vacation, reading the cues for when a staff member needs downtime and recognizing that his employees are more productive and creative when they return. To encourage time off, he begins reminding employees in spring to schedule their vacation time for summer.
American workers typically accrue paid vacation based on the length of time they’ve worked for an employer. Over the past three decades, America has become a no-vacation nation, with four in 10 American workers forfeiting some of their paid vacation days — as much as 429 days in 2013, according to the United States Travel and Tourism Association. A quarter of American workers get no paid vacation leave at all.
The party line might be that taking vacation is encouraged and supported, but in some workplaces, employees sense hesitation, even a little judgment, when people take time off. “I’d love to think bosses are thinking about what’s best for their employees, but I’m sure they are thinking that business has to get done and most businesses have deadlines,” says McLane, the corporate recruiter.
There is no excuse for a supervisor making snarky comments about taking time off or even refusing requests, says Katie Denis, senior program director for Project Time Off, a data-driven initiative that looks at the benefits of taking earned time off: “There is a strong business case for recharging, and that manager is not going to get his best from his employees.”
In the new study, managers reported timing as the top reason they turn down a request. They were worried about coverage during busy season or too many people being on vacation at the same time. Another reason for denial was the perceived pressure from above. “They feel unsure about upper management’s expectations,” Denis says.
The resulting accumulation of unused paid vacation days can quickly become a liability. In the analysis conducted on behalf of Project: Time Off, Oxford Economics, a global economics forecasting firm affiliated with Oxford University, discovered $224 billion in liabilities sitting on the balance sheets of American companies due to unused vacation time. “That number is going up rapidly, at it’s a true cost to the bottom line,” Denis says. “It should be alarming.”
As a manager, Jay Massirman, president and co-owner of Rivergate Cos., a Miami real-estate firm, thinks about vacations and the bottom line from multiple perspectives. It factors into how he responds when one of his property managers wants to take vacation time — or forgo it: “We want interaction with our clients to be positive and uplifting. If our managers don’t go on vacation and don’t take a break, things won’t go right in the long run. It would not be a healthy scenario.”
Last year, Massirman learned that some workers had accumulated unused vacation time because they were “too busy” to take it: “When I heard that, I realized I had to let them know they had to plan time off and that people would cover, clients would understand. Everyone — particularly in managerial roles — needs downtime. We’re going at it 24/7.”
Creating a work environment supportive of vacation time doesn’t happen purely through policy. Managers’ behavior more typically shapes the culture, and in too many workplaces, bosses hold up lack of work/life balance as exemplary behavior. A Korn Ferry survey of 400 executives shows 67 percent admitted they have postponed or canceled vacation plans due to the demands at work. Worse, some managers return from vacation overwhelmed and announce to staff members that the onslaught upon return wasn’t worth the time off. Denis argues that can be prevented through good management: delegation and planning ahead.
To vacation smoothly, law firm owner Gregory Mayback of Mayback & Hoffman in Fort Lauderdale begins preparation at least three weeks in advance and asks his employees to do the same: “The goal is to finish the work that gets you to the end of your vacation before you leave, or delegate it.” Like most senior leaders, Mayback will check in during vacation and ask to be contacted as needed. However, he makes it clear to staff members that for them, delegating is the better option: “Knowing that others are taking care of business is crucial for employees to completely separate from work during their time away.”
Even with supportive managers, the burden is on the employee to figure out how to leave the job for an acceptable number of days without creating any problems, and to follow etiquette regarding being reachable or in contact.
Brent Upchurch, the owner/operator of McDonald’s restaurants in South Florida, regularly allocates time at managers’ meetings to ask who is on vacation. He says employees’ taking time off ultimately benefits the work environment: “I believe they have got to get away from the restaurant and recharge to be able to see the forest through the trees.” He also encourages managers to plan ahead, and disconnect: “It’s important to give that nudge and tell them it’s OK.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on work life topics. Connect with her at BalanceGal@gmail.com or visit worklifebalancingact.com.
Questions, answers from managers
Q. What does a manager consider when his or her team member asks to take vacation?
A. When team members take vacations, they are more productive, happier, healthier and have an improved overall well-being. Of course, there are some clear business factors that need to be taken into consideration including deadlines, staffing logistics and project requirements. It is essential that managers communicate effectively and that team members plan ahead. It’s important to remember that the benefits of taking vacations far outweigh the short-term challenges required to accommodate time-off requests.
Nizar Jabara, senior vice president, Global Human Resources Diamond Resorts International®
Q. How do you get managers to set an example for staff?
A. Our team organically started sending pictures of our vacations to each other as a way to remind each other the importance of taking time off.
Laurie Brednich, GoDaddy Director, Employee Benefits
Q. If a boss checks in on vacation, does he or she have the same expectations for staff?
A. Absolutely not. I am a proponent of not having that happen. They need to delegate, take the team approach and have people cover for them. The goal is to not take the BlackBerry. The sad reality is everyone wants it yesterday, so they need to communicate that they will be on vacation and here is who is covering.
Jay Massirman, CEO of Rivergate Cos.
Q. What would cause a manager not to encourage a staff member to take vacation?
A. The more responsibility, the harder it is to take vacations when you want them. My employees are encouraged to take vacation when they need it because time away from the office is important to recharge. I am looking at whether I have coverage. As long as I have notice and I can get coverage, I am good with it.
Brent Upchurch, owner/operator of McDonald’s restaurants
Q. What is the standard acceptable chunk of time off to take as summer vacation?
A. Typically, employees will take one to two weeks of continuous vacation during whatever time of year works best for them. Anything greater becomes a planning issue.
Gregory Mayback, Mayback & Hoffman, Fort Lauderdale