Employees are avoiding taking vacation during the pandemic. As leaders we need to address the behaviors behind this phenomenon to avoid burnout and an end-of-year rush.
Just when you thought you'd seen enough hoarding and panic buying for one lifetime, having witnessed store shelves devoid of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, face masks, lumber, and even coins, another hoarding epidemic is sweeping many organizations: vacation hoarding. While there are few reliable statistics on how workers use their vacation time, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 73% of US workers have access to paid vacation time, and anecdotally, according to a recent article, many of them are refusing to use that vacation time.
SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)
I've certainly been guilty of this phenomenon; despite a rather generous amount of paid vacation time, I've used very little of what I've been allocated. Like many workers, a significant portion of my vacation time each year is "use it or lose it," in that any unused time disappears without any monetary equivalent. Like many workers, the uncertainty of the current environment had me banking days for reasons that ranged from hopes that the economy would reopen and cancelled vacations could be taken, to concerns about my family or me getting sick and requiring vacation time for recovery.
Isn't unused vacation a good thing?
It's easy to take a cynical view that employees not using their vacation, especially under a "use it or lose it" regime, is a good thing for the overall company. Vacation time is essentially a cash equivalent, where the company continues to pay workers despite the fact that they're not working, and unused vacation is akin to employees willingly returning a percentage of their paycheck each month. However, there are two potential problems with employees hoarding their vacation hours.
First, a significant motivation for providing employees with paid vacation time is preventing burnout at work. Time away from the office can do wonders to reinvigorate employees during "normal" times, and these days the ability to recharge is even more important. This is doubly concerning since should conditions improve, there could be an explosion of economic activity in early 2021. If your company is full of employees operating in a zombie-like state due to mental and physical exhaustion just as the phones start ringing and you need their focus most, you run the risk of adding missed opportunity to the damage already wrought by COVID-19.
Secondly, at most organizations that reset the "vacation clock" on a calendar-year basis, you run the risk of a vacation rush at the end of the year. Employees who have been delaying plans may suddenly book that time away from the office, leaving you with a year end brain drain and skeleton staff. If the remaining staff are already suffering from burnout, asking them to pick up the work of their vacationing colleagues may push them to the brink.
While unused vacation may have the appearance of money in the bank from an employer perspective, it's a bit of a Faustian bargain if it results in a significant and long-lasting hit to productivity because your employees are no longer functioning at their best when you may need them most.
Set an example: Take your own time off
Like most leadership behaviors, it's important you lead by example when it comes to taking vacation. Most leaders I've spoken to have done a poor job taking time away, so it's no wonder employees are hesitant to do so. Book a week away, and share your plans with your team. Even if you're unable to hop on a plane to your favorite vacation spot, a "staycation" or road trip can be a great way to recharge your mental batteries, explore those places within driving distance you've always been meaning to visit, and mentally prepare yourself for what will hopefully be a rebounding and reopening world.
SEE: Most employees are completely happy to never return to the office, survey finds (TechRepublic)
You should also begin a planning exercise and solicit vacation dates from employees between now and the end of the year. This will not only trigger employees to consider when they'll take some well-deserved time away, and perhaps gently force their hands on taking a vacation, but will also avoid the majority of your team planning to depart over the same few weeks.
While vacation might seem like a frivolous act in uncertain times, ensuring you and your staff are mentally fresh and prepared for whatever 2021 has in store is not only being a good leader, it's also a smart strategic decision.
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