We’re right in the middle of summer, and here at TechRepublic, that means it’s prime time for vacation. During any week this time of year, we could easily have up to 10 percent of our people out on vacation. I’m guessing you are facing a similar situation.

For most IT managers, staff vacations are simply one more headache. Unless you work at a really large organization, odds are you aren’t staffed to cover employee vacations. Therefore, when people are out, those who are left have to pick up the slack. Furthermore, there are always conflicts regarding scheduling: Both your Exchange administrators want the same week off, or half of your developers want to take vacation the week before a major application is supposed to deploy.

Given these problems, you might be surprised to learn that in this column, I’m going to talk about another problem: the fact that too many of your employees aren’t taking enough vacation. We’ve run survey results like the one in Figure A before, which point out how difficult it is for some IT professionals to take vacations. First, I’ll explain why it’s a problem, and then I’ll offer some suggestions on how you can help.

Figure A
Are your employees taking their vacation time?

Why you should care about your employees’ vacations
At first glance, this seems like a nonproblem. After all, you might be saying to yourself, the important thing is that the organization offers a decent vacation package to its employees. If some people choose not to use that benefit, isn’t that their prerogative? Who am I to second-guess their choices?

In point of fact, there are several good reasons for technical managers to make certain that their people are taking their vacations. Here are some of the most salient:

  • It helps your organization’s bottom line: Depending on what country you work in, and how your organization does its accounting, unused vacation time is a liability that acts as a drag on financial results. You’d be surprised at how quickly that liability can grow in a large organization. (NOTE: A larger problem here is when employees actually do take their vacation but don’t report it to HR/Accounting. As a result, the liability isn’t reduced.)
  • Vacations reduce stress and burnout: This point is so obvious it doesn’t need to be debated. Of course, it seems like a rather vague benefit, stacked up against the tangible difficulty of managing vacation coverage, but it’s real all the same. In general, your employees will feel better about themselves and their jobs when they take regular vacations. Therefore, it follows that they do better work as well.
  • Unused vacation time serves as an early warning of other problems: This is the factor that most people don’t consider. While some of your employees are probably workaholics who simply love their jobs so much they can’t stand to be away, most people look forward to taking time off, even if they plan to simply stay at home. Therefore, when your staff isn’t taking enough time off, that fact should set off alarm bells. For example, some people scale back or cancel their vacation plans if they are concerned about their jobs—unused vacation could therefore indicate a real morale problem. On the other hand, it could indicate that an employee is having some kind of difficulty outside of work. There are less troubling reasons for not taking vacation. The key here is to spend some time with your people and find out what they’re thinking.

What you should do about it
I hope you now agree that there is a problem. What should you do about it? Here are some suggestions:

  • Quantify the problem: If you don’t already get reports from your HR department that track unused vacation time for your employees, ask for the information. You need to be able to identify the employees most at risk.
  • Invest the time: Bite the bullet and spend time with the employees carrying the most unused vacation. Ask them directly about their current plans to take some time off. Find out if this unused vacation masks a deeper problem.
  • Set the example: I know that it’s difficult for IT managers to take vacation—perhaps even more so than for the people you supervise. Nonetheless, it’s important to send a message that the organization values people’s personal time and that vacations play an important role. In practical terms, it’s going to be difficult to convince someone to take some of his or her 140 unused vacation hours if you’re carrying 175 hours yourself.
  • Provide the planning: As I said in an earlier column, vacation planning is difficult. Help your people by giving them suggestions on how to plan their own time off.
  • Talk the talk: Economists refer to it as jawboning—the art of public persuasion. In addition to providing a personal example yourself and counseling individual employees as needed, find ways in group meetings and e-mail to stress the organization’s commitment to making sure everyone can take their vacation and reinforce the personal and professional importance of taking a vacation.

While I know it’s difficult this time of year, the key is to stop thinking of employee vacations as a scheduling nightmare and start thinking of them as a way for your people to recharge their batteries and recommit to their jobs.

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