We have a vacation problem in this country.
On the whole, Americans are terrible at taking time off to relax. In 2016, 34 percent of US workers didn’t take a single vacation day, according to a Skift survey. The average employee earned 22.6 days last year, but only 46 percent of workers took all of their vacation time, according to Project Time Off’s new report, The State of American Vacation 2017.
While the researchers said that the average number of vacation days taken ticked up last year for the first time since 2000, we still only took 16.8 days per worker on average (about 74 percent of the average earned vacation time). Even when we actually manage to escape the office, we refuse to unplug: 61 percent of us admit to working while on vacation. (Yes, I, too, am guilty as charged on this one.)
The result is that we’re a bunch of workaholics, and our well-being suffers because of our “work martyrdom.” Research suggests that there are plenty of health benefits to going on vacation, including lower stress, healthier hearts, and better sleep. The renowned Framingham Heart Study, which followed 12,000 men at high risk for coronary heart disease for nine years, found that vacation takers had a lower risk of suffering a heart attack. This fact is worth considering.
"The more frequent the vacations, the longer the men lived," Karen Matthews of the University of Pittsburgh's Mind-Body Center, told NPR.
We often hear from customers that persuading employees to actually go on vacation is tough. But, increasingly, we’re hearing about companies that are concerned about the well-being of their workers and are taking action. Here are some innovative benefit strategies that they’re using — and that you might find interesting.
Give employees spending money
Some cool cash can be a good way to get employees onto a hot beach somewhere. In fact, the top reason given among non-vacationers is that they simply can’t afford it. To make a vacation more within reach, companies such as Buffer and Evernote have started giving employees $1,000 if they take at least a week off.
FullContact offers one of the most generous benefits around: The contact management company will give each employee $7,500 every year to finance a vacation — on top of the standard 15 days of vacation and federal holidays. But employees must promise to unplug completely (no checking work emails, calls, or texts), and, of course, they actually need to take time off to use the money.
Basecamp employees who make it past the one-year milestone can pick from a selection of paid vacations that range from $4,000 to 5,000 apiece. Workers at Zozi get a $400 quarterly bonus that goes into a “fun fund” to pay for a mini-vacation, or save for a bigger trip. Employees at Airbnb get $500 a quarter to spend if they use Airbnb accommodations on their trips.
Granted, these generous vacation perks tend to be concentrated among smaller tech companies that find themselves in a constant war for good talent. But you can apply the same approach on a smaller scale, like giving out $100 prepaid debit cards to be used for vacation expenses.
Help employees save for vacation
Don’t have the resources to offer outright cash? Some companies have started to dip into an interesting new concept: the vacation savings account.
Modeled after the ubiquitous 401(k), this unique financial vehicle allows employees to put their after-tax dollars into a savings account to pay for future vacations. The money comes straight out of their paychecks, so they’re not tempted to use it for other things, and companies can put in matching funds as well.
An outfit with the clever name of 401(Play) has been the leading provider and advocate of the vacation savings account. The service is offered free to employees, but companies pay an annual flat fee of $250 to $3,000, depending on the size of their workforce. The funds are accessed through a prepaid VISA card.
“We get a lot of [employers] that jump on this because it’s part of their wellness program,” Greg Nickolson, president of 401(Play), told Employee Benefit News. “When employees don’t take time off they become burned out, which can lead to health problems and poor quality of work and negative productivity.”
Nickolson added that the benefit can help with recruitment and retention.
Making vacations mandatory
In recent years, the “unlimited vacation policy” has come into vogue. But what some companies that offered this benefit began to realize was that it didn’t encourage employees to take any more time off. In fact, in some cases, workers took less vacation because they didn’t have clear guidelines on what was considered an appropriate number of days to take.
In 2015, Kickstarter ended its flexible vacation policy and instituted a (still generous) cap of 25 days a year.
Others have explored an innovative twist: Instead of increasing the maximum number of vacation days allowed, they have implemented a minimum vacation policy. In other words, employees are required to take a certain number of days off each year.
Buffer is one company that has moved from a policy of unlimited vacation days to one that recommends a minimum number of days.
“We needed a way to help teammates feel guilt-free about taking time off and to reduce the cognitive load of figuring out how and when to take time away,” the social media management company wrote on its blog about the 2016 change.
Other companies that have mandatory vacation policies include Kik (one week for every four months) and HubSpot (two weeks annually).
Stop rolling over vacation days
When workers have the option to accrue vacation days into the next year, what often happens is they hoard the time, thinking they’ll go on a longer trip later — but the vacation never gets taken.
This tendency is supported by a 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. It found that 58 percent of employees who are allowed to roll over vacation days leave between three and eight unused days at the end of the year. By contrast, at companies with a "use it or lose it" policy, 64 percent have only two days or fewer of unused vacation days.
While creating a policy that prohibits rollovers doesn’t seem employee-friendly at first glance, it can actually benefit workers by providing the sense of urgency that’s needed for many to take action and start planning and taking vacations.
Keep in mind that some states, such as California, don’t allow accrued vacation days to expire. Be sure to check with your legal team.
Create a culture that values vacations
This final strategy shouldn’t cost you a dime to implement.
One of the biggest reasons that workers forgo vacation is the fear that they will be replaced if they take some time off, according to a new survey of 2,200 workers by Glassdoor. They worry about getting behind on their work, or that no one else at the company can do the work while they’re out. They also dread facing the mountain of work that might be waiting for them when they return. These fears have been heightened by the Great Recession.
What companies can and should be doing is ensuring that all employees, from the CEO to managers to front-line workers, understand the value of taking vacations. Never allow a manager to create an environment where taking a vacation feels like a risk to your career.
While vacations are probably not mandatory at your company, you can impress upon employees that taking time off is required as part of maintaining their well-being. It’s not optional if you want to stay healthy and productive, relieve stress, and recharge. Vacations should be on a par with pay raises — you’d be insane to turn one down.
Eric Mann heads up marketing efforts for our key partners. He has more than 20 years of technology and health care marketing experience, leading browser marketing for Netscape and product marketing for Oracle Health Science.