Working Smarter

5 Ways We Cut Vacations, and Life, Short

Posted by Joe Robinson

Aitutaki-1

Not only do Americans have the shortest annual paid vacations by far among industrialized nations, we also have developed a habit over the last couple decades of self-inflicting even shorter holidays than are in our company policies by leaving untaken vacation days on the table.

It’s bad for your health, productivity, leaves you with life highlights unlived, and I would like to simply plead, don’t do it again this summer!

AT A CERTIFIABLE LOSS

A Glassdoor survey found that half of American workers give back unused vacation time every year.  Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey reports the grim stat that Americans give back some 400 million vacation days each year.

An Australian or German vacationer would find it incomprehensible to give back a single hour of their allotment of four to six weeks. Wait a minute! You are actually going to voluntarily abbreviate your holiday? No, that would be certifiable.

Not taking all your vacation time is like handing back your paycheck, only worse, since you are handing back priceless items such as life experiences, which studies show make us happier than material things. They are the living we are making for ourselves, the proof of some semblance of work-life balance and a reminder of what's out there for us if we are.

The annual holiday is your best chance all year of fully partaking in the panoply of life opportunities free of duty and obligation. The time you shave from your vacay or holiday that's skipped completely is never coming back again. That's not going to sit well when you look back over your life. We regret more the things we don't do than what we do. Researchers call it "the inaction effect."

THE LOSE-LOSE OF LIFE LEFT ON THE TABLE

The research tells us that not taking all our time off is a lose-lose, for you and the company. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% when we return from a vacation. Studies show breaks of all kinds, from five minutes to two-week vacations increase productivity. Minds and bodies get rebooted after the recuperative time away from the source of stress. It takes less effort to get the job done when we come back to the job.

The tradition of the American vacation was actually started back in the 1920s and 1930s by companies as a productivity tool. Fatigue studies back then showed that when workers returned rejuvenated from their holiday, output increased. It was a factory era back in those days, so you might think, yeah, a physical break made sense. Today, we’re just sitting on our butts, though.

DSCN1526

Researchers say the brain goes down well before the body, and when it does, so does your chief productivity tool, attention. The source of productivity in the knowledge economy is a refreshed and energized brain. Vacations provide recreation, as in re-creation, for your mental faculties. They turn off job stress and increase positive emotions as well as core needs of autonomy and competence.

Burnout is the opposite of employee engagement, which all organizations want, since engaged employees are some 28% more productive. Its main dimension is exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Vacations can cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, by regathering crashed emotional resources, like a sense of mastery and social support (Hobfoll, Shirom). But here’s the kicker, it takes two weeks of vacation for this recuperative process to occur, so we need to take all our time off to get the health benefits.

It also takes time if you want to travel to another hemisphere and see an exotic realm like the Cook island of Aitutaki (top photo), a series of islets ringing a sunken volcano over which a lagoon has formed. It's jammed with colorful fish and a snorkeler's dream. Stress is not allowed on the Cook Islands.

5 WAYS WE STEAL TIME FROM OUR VACATIONS 

What prevents Americans from taking all the time coming to them? Mostly unfounded fear and guilt, all-consuming busyness, digital addiction, and the inability to plan. These are all conquerable obstacles.

1. Defensive overworking. Fear kills vacation time by making people think that if they take all their vacation time, or take it all at one time, that they will be seen as a slacker. It could make them more expendable in the next round of layoffs. It’s called defensive overworking—working longer, skipping vacations, or cutting them short to underscore commitment and bolster a hard-working image. The reality is, though, that people who skip vacations get laid off like everyone else.

Inle girl

One woman I interviewed had been with her company for two decades, and had five weeks vacation as a result. Yet she only took a couple of long weekends off each year for fear of it making her seem too replaceable and not gung-ho enough. Then she got laid off. Now she wonders where her life went. Let your productivity and engagement at work speak for itself. Vacation denial is futile. All things change, all companies change. Live now or never.

2. Email derangement syndrome. It seems implausible that people would actually forego vacation time because of too much email when they get back to their desks, but no. This actually happens. Nobody likes a pile of email, but is a bunch of it really worth passing on your life? Like all fears, it’s just the prospect of it, not the reality, that makes you think you can’t handle it, which is the cue for the stress response to go off. At the worst, you have a couple of days of heavy email on return, and it’s over.

The better solution is to put a notification on your vacation email autoresponder stating that email will not be checked while you’re gone and to send it when you are back in the office. Many of the issues prompting the email will have been resolved by the time you get back. You can also designate someone else to take care of issues in your absence.

3. Coworker guilt. I hear this one a lot. People are afraid of burdening their coworkers and teams with extra work as a result of their taking time off, so they shave off vacation days here and there. Granted, staffs are leaner these days, but it’s crucial to ask yourself how many of your coworkers would feel guilty about you having to do extra work on account of their vacation. If the time off is in your company policy, you are entitled to take it.

The answer here is to have cross-training within teams and departments. This is one of the secrets to European vacations as well as holidays for those in the U.S. Army. The idea is that each of us trains colleagues on bits of our job—20% here, 30% there, etc.—and while we are gone, those folks fill in for us. When they are on vacations, we pick up the slack for them. Cross-training builds tight teamwork like nothing else. You are grateful to your teammates who help you get your vacay, and they feel the same about you helping them get out and live.

Companies who use cross-training report massive increases in teamwork and productivity. Ron Kelemen, head of the H Group in Salem, Oregon, told me that an extra week of vacation combined with cross-training was the best productivity strategy he’d ever seen.

Girl in Ireland copy

4. The "I'm-too-busy" mental block.  In a culture that celebrates rote busy-ness as productivity, when often it’s just commotion without conscious thought or forward movement, many of us these days can get trapped in a false belief that we can never stop or step back. There’s too much to do. We can’t be out of email touch and might missing something important. The mental block of busy-ness tells us there’s no time to take off. I'm too busy to think about a holiday or plan a vacation.

Busy-ness also drives hurry-worry and time urgency, which aggravate the perception of zero time for anything that’s not productive, like your life. To take time, you have to make time, plan months in advance, and put your vacation on the calendar so it’s locked in for yourself and your team. Ask yourself, am I too busy to live?

Rote busy-ness also fuels mechanical momentum, which can lead to being so wrapped up in the day-to-day duties, that it appears all will fall apart without you. If you aren’t there, things will go to Hades. As former vacation-skippers have told me, the job, the team, and the company did not implode when they finally took a long overdue vacation. It was just a fear, and fears have an abysmal track record as a predictive tool.

5. Macho-rexia bravado. Many a vacation gets shrunk or tossed out of a belief that the job is a macho endurance contest. Whoever is left standing at 11:30 p.m. wins. In this view taking a vacation or one of any length is wimpy or weak. This doesn’t just cut vacations short, it can lead to cutting life short from the diseases of overperformance and workaholism, from heart attacks to stroke and hypertension. Like anorexia, macho-rexia is a self-driven affliction that comes from excess concern about what others think.

Extreme hours and skipping vacations may get a clap on the back, but at what cost? Toughness is an inside job—working smarter, not at the threshold of pain.  Instead of bragging about late nights and weekends worked, try telling others about that bicycle trip in the wine country of California or what it was like to parasail. Researcher Leaf van Boven and colleagues have found that people like folks more who have experiences to share.

Let’s make a vow this summer to not fall for lame, self-defeating busyness, the no-time rut, the guilt and bravado, and forego the masochism, instead of the vacation. Discover the power of the rapture of being alive as fully as you can experience it for as many days as you can squeeze in. 

 

Tags: leaving vacation time on the table, vacation time, vacations and life balance

The Best Employee Retention Strategy Ever: More Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson

Tahiti

Most companies spend a lot of time building customer loyalty and usually know what to do to get it. Yet there is a lot less attention paid to another kind of loyalty that is just as important: employee commitment, and the much less known routes that make that happen. That's a big mistake in a strong job market with a couple of generations that have well-known commitment issues. 

Take a look at these numbers from a 2018 Deloitte survey. Some 43% of millennials don’t plan to stick around for more than two years and almost two-thirds of Gen Z, 61%, want to bolt within two years. Only 28% of millennials want to be at their company five years.

This is a ticking turnover time bomb, but there is a hidden tool to stem the outflow and improve the morale of employees to such a degree that they feel so respected, they don’t think about going anywhere else: more vacation time.

THE MOST SUCCESSFUL RETENTION PROGRAM

Mary Miller, co-owner of Jancoa, a cleaning firm in Cincinnati, says adding a week of vacation to her two-week policy reduced a 360% turnover rate to 60% in two months and lower as time went on. “The three-week vacation has been the most successful retention program we have ever had,” Miller told me. Productivity shot up, as did sales and profits.

“We realized that, with the money we were putting out for recruiting, training, and background checks for new employees, the extra week of vacation really cost us nothing.”

Stats from the Society for Human Resource Management show that it costs 90% to 200% of an employee's salary to replace them with somebody else.

How can another week of vacation make the difference in someone staying, instead of plotting to leave? It might have something to do with the fact that researchers (Hershfield, Mogliner, Barnea) have found that people who value time more than money are happier.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

When companies offer three weeks, for instance, over the standard one or two, it’s a perk that pays off in better work-life balance, which increases life satisfaction, and that in turn boosts job satisfaction. You need time to get recuperative benefits (two weeks to cure burnout) and go anywhere out of the country. Talk to people who have good vacation policies, three or four weeks, and they don't want to go anywhere else and lose that benefit.

People feel valued by a generous vacation policy, and that is the most important factor in employee engagement, which can result in the team working 21% harder, according to the Corporate Executive Board.

THE BRAIN RESET

When Bart Lorang, CEO of Full Contact in Denver, Colorado, wanted to increase the appeal of his company to top software engineers so he could compete with tech hubs in California and Seattle, he decided to offer a sweetened vacation pot. Not only would he offer unlimited vacation time, but he would also give his employees a $7500 stipend to pay for their vacation. Recruitment and retention concerns solved.

The kicker on the $7500, though, is that you can only collect the money if you really take your vacation and stay unplugged the whole time you’re on it. He wants brains reset when they come back, because he knows it results in better work and fewer mistakes.

Competition for the best coders and computer geniuses in the tech world is fierce, so they have to provide serious perks to attract the top people. One of the most popular is the unlimited vacation policy. Employees can take the time they need, as long as all the work gets done. It is becoming commonplace for tech firms to adopt unlimited vacation. It attracts the best people and helps keep them there.

Millennials and Gen Z employees are particularly attuned to vacation policies. They value work-life balance and travel more than baby boomers, but they have less vacation time than boomers to take vacations. Additional vacation time goes a long way to give these two cohorts the sense they can have a life as well as a job.

BUILDING CORE NEEDS

The appeal of vacations may seem self-evident. Turn off stress, cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom), cut heart attack risk (30% in men, 50% in women who take two vacations; Brooks, Gump), relax, have fun, explore new places and foods, and live your life as fully as possible.

Yet there are deeper reasons why vacations can have a profound impact on outlook, attitude, and commitment. Humans have three core psychological needs that are paid off on a vacation like nowhere else: autonomy, competence, and connection with others.

We need to feel like we are writing our own scripts, the research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows, and vacations give us that opportunity to determine the content of our lives to the max. We choose where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do.

We get from here to there using skills that make us feel competent. And we spend quality time with family and friends and make a host of new friendships that satisfy the need to connect with others. These are powerful souvenirs that make us feel intrinsically gratified. They translate to the positive outlook that we bring back to the job, and make us feel good about ourselves and the company that provides time to recreate, recharge, and discover our lives.

The energizing nature of a trip loaded with fun, positive emotions, and powerful new experiences increases productivity on return. You have more focus, and it takes less effort to get the job done. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% after a vacation (Rosekind) and productivity along with them. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and a holiday restores it to working condition in the same way that a good night’s sleep rejuvenates an exhausted body or a charger brings your cell phone back to life. 

Ron Kelemen of the H Group in Salem, Oregon told me that he doubled his income when his company switched to more vacation time, as he took a month off himself each year to go snowboarding or visit Costa Rica. Relaxed and energized brains do more focused work.

THE VACATION SYSTEM

Adding another week of vacation isn’t that hard to do. It starts with a quick change of the vacation policy. It has to be followed up, though, with organization. Employees should choose their vacation times at the beginning of the year, so that everyone knows when coverage will be needed. When holidays are figured in to the workflow and operations of the company, it all runs much more effectively than the seat-of-the-pants approach, where nothing is planned and there's no contingency for when it's time for someone to go on holiday.

Another key part of smoothly run vacations is crosstraining. Have teams learn each others’ jobs, so they can fill in when colleagues are out. This works when people are ill too. That’s what Kelemen does in his company. He says crosstraining builds incredible teamwork, since you owe your vacation to others filling in for you and vice-versa.

So the vacation strategy brings stellar teamwork, more productivity and focus and a feeling that the organization values employees’ lives. That makes you feel a part of the team, not apart from it. It's human nature that people want to stick around where they feel they belong. 

If you would like to learn more about how to cut stress and increase work-life balance for your team, and the role that time for life plays in increased productivity, please click the button below for details.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: vacations and work-life balance, vacation time, vacations and employee retention

6 Bogus Excuses Why We Don't Take All Our Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson

Beach couple-1

We can come up with excuses for just about anything. Inventing false justifications is a talent for which all humans are Picassos of creativity, and it can extend to things that seem downright unbelievable—like why you can’t take a vacation.

This particular excuse is an American talent, if you can call handing back the best time you have all year to live freely and fully a talent. It’s more like self-sabotage, aided and abetted by instant technology, time urgency, and a belief that if you aren’t in contact with the digital world for 15 minutes, you might miss something earth-shattering. Yet when we fall prey to this reflex, what we really wind up missing is our lives.

 VACATIONS ARE THE PEOPLE SPORT

A survey by Project: Time Off showed that more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days on the table. That amounts to handing back your paycheck and working for free. That doesn’t add up.

That’s certainly true for the rest of the industrialized world, such as Europe and Australia, where not taking all your vacation time would be certifiable. “You’d be considered stupid, if you didn’t take your vacation,” Zurich, Switzerland native Sybille Hartman told me. “Leisure is like a people sport in Europe. It’s very important that you take this time. It’s something you’re proud of. The topic at work is often about holidays.”

Small Travel girl Slovenia

In Europe, people are either talking about the trip they just had or the one they are planning. It doesn’t really go that way in American offices because of a variety of false beliefs and myths about productivity, technology, and identity that drive real-appearing reasons to avoid living your life—like I might get laid off if I take all my vacation days, or there would be too much email when I return, or I might miss something.

THE NO-LIFE REFLEX

The latter is one I get in my coaching work with people whose chronic stress has developed into burnout. I find out that the person hasn’t taken a vacation in years. Why? Something important might happen while they are gone. They worry everything would fall apart if they took a holiday.

What’s falling apart, though, is their health. The human physiology is designed for rest and maintenance to counter the activation and demands in our life. When there’s no interruption of the demands driving the stress response and a chance to recharge lost energetic resources, major medical blowbacks occur.

This is why vacations have been shown to be such a great stress management strategy. They cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom) over a two-week period of regathering crashed emotional resources. Vacations reduce the risk of heart attacks in men by 30% (Gump, Mathews) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There is no health food that can give you that benefit.

It’s time to dispense the smelling salts and come to our senses. Excuses that keep us from living DON’T MAKE SENSE. What is the work for, if not for allowing us to live our lives to the fullest and participate in experiences of recreation, relaxation, and exploration that satisfy one of our deepest needs—autonomy, the feeling that we are determining the content of our life.

Yosemite

This is what researchers say our brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment—writing our script to search out novelty and challenge. Nothing delivers those two qualities like a vacation. So why would anyone want to forego this awesome payoff?

Well, it turns out that some pernicious and bogus excuses are pretty darn good at holding back our lives. Let’s detonate them now:

 6 IRRATIONAL REASONS FOR GIVING BACK VACATION TIME

1. Might Miss Something. The fear of missing out is part-worry about an emergency or problem happening not on your watch, but mostly these days it’s about technology addiction. Constant email checking and interruptions erode impulse control, leaving more and more of us with no ability to regulate impulsivity to check constantly. That leaves the thought of not checking mail for a week or two terrifying. Some 62% of Americans check work email on vacations (Travel Leaders), while 77% of British holiday-makers don’t, according to a new survey by Panoramic Villas.

The fear of missing something is a projected anxiety that fuels overwork and burnout when we don’t have clear understandings about what constitutes an emergency as well as contingencies to take care of problems while we’re on vacation. Emergencies should always be handled by phone, not email, so we don’t have to be checking messages every five minutes even when we are home. The key is to plan ahead and designate someone else to take emergencies while you are on holiday. Put that person’s contact info on your email autoresponder so work problems don’t preempt your living time.

The key to work recovery, the physiological and mental recuperation from stress and tension, is psychological detachment from the sources of stress and work thoughts. That can’t happen if you’re checking in on holiday.

2. Things Will Fall Apart. This is another baseless fear. It stems from the center-of-the-universe false belief that you are holding the world together and that your departure would spell doom. This comes from deep in the American identity, the performance identity, which makes us believe we are our jobs. In fact, the job is just part of your ID and not even the lion’s share. It’s what psychologists call a persona, your social handle. It’s hard to pull away from the job for a vacation, when you believe that worth comes only from performance.

We can’t live our lives to the fullest unless we have identities outside the job as well as on. What are your interests, enthusiasms, affinities? Start identifying them now and head for the direction your brain wants: curiosity and exploration. And keep in mind the thought of things falling apart is just that, a thought, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is.

3. Too Much Email. It’s hard to believe, but I hear this one a lot. I can’t take my vacation because there’s too much email when I get back. Try saying that one more time, only thinking about what it is you’re saying. You are going to give up your best living time of the year because of EMAIL? The solution: Put a message on your email autoresponder stating that no email will be read by you or even received by you until you return from your trip. Leave the name and number of someone people can get in touch with while you’re gone, if an issue pops up.

4. Too Busy. This all-purpose excuse is very effective at getting people to be so consumed in the next to-do that they are willing to waive their just rewards for working their tails off for a year. It’s a self-infliction that comes from a brain addled by time urgency and overwhelm, i.e., the stress response, a false alarm that makes every minute of the day an emergency and forces us to make every minute on and off work jammed with productive endeavor. We can’t relax, because we’re too busy.

The mental block of “I’m too busy” is another false belief. There is no emergency, unless you want to consider the abdication of life as one. The way around this block is to remember that it’s not an emergency; it’s a speed trap. Ask yourself the real question: AM I TOO BUSY TO LIVE? Plan your vacation at the beginning of the year. Get it on the schedule for yourself and the company. This is one of the secrets of European vacation time. Everyone plans their big holidays well in advance, and everything is figured out in advance into the workflow of the company and the life plans of the individual, so it’s not the interruptive obstacle it’s made to seem here.

5. Too Guilty. Some of us fall prey to the bravado displays of workaholics around us or feel guilty about the burden we might inflict on others if we take our vacation. Schedule your time off for a less hectic time in the schedule, give plenty of notice, and there is no reason for guilt. You earned the vacation, and that vacation is on the books of your company’s policy for some reason, say, like permission to actually take the time off. Refuse to shave a minute off your vacation time because someone wished you “happy loafing.” The fact that some people choose to be work martyrs and miserable as a result is not your problem.

6. Might Get Laid Off. We live in a time of high job insecurity. It has made some feel that taking a holiday could be a strike against them and mark them for the next layoff. Giving up your vacation in the hope that defensive overworking will protect you from future cutbacks is a false belief standing on the neck of your life. I have talked to and interviewed many who were laid off even though they didn’t take their vacations. Trying to control what can’t be controlled is a futile exercise. The most memorable example of this is a woman at a large Texas tech company who barely took a week of her four-week vacation she had accrued after 15 years at the company. Then she got laid off. “Where did my life go?” she asked me, looking back over the years of untaken vacations.

THE BIGGEST VACATION COP-OUT

All of the excuses for not taking vacations are byproducts of the biggest false belief, that time off is substandard to time on, and therefore, indulging in it is a waste of productive endeavor. All the research, not to mention common sense, tells us that this is not true. Time off is the engine of time on, providing the energy, focus, and fatigue-busting that helps us get the job done faster with less effort and the life satisfaction and positive emotions that make life worth living and increase job satisfaction along the way.

Part of the process of blowing up excuses to not take vacations or all the time we have on them is understanding the value we are walking away from. Vacations are nothing less than the time of our lives, which I’m sure you would consider a valuable thing. And you would consider it more valuable once you got out on a holiday for a couple of weeks of fun and head-clearing.

Push past the irrational fear and see how wrong the thoughts in your head are. An account executive I talked to in Lansing, Michigan, Anita Salustro, hadn’t taken a real vacation in years because she thought everything would implode while she was gone. A friend of hers at another branch of the office took a three-week vacation, so she decided to take a one too. She had an amazing time, and when she returned, the world was still spinning on its axis. 

“It was all in my head, as it’s in the head of so many people I know. I survived it, loved it. I realized that there’s life outside of work. My company didn’t fold.”

Tags: vacation time, vacations and excuses not to take all our time

Subscribe via E-mail

Latest Posts

Posts by category

Follow Me