Americans are good at many things, but taking vacations is not one of them. Although people may be reluctant for various reasons to use their vacation time, we need the many mental health benefits of time off now more than ever. Recognizing this fact, one CEO has gone to considerable lengths to make sure his employees feel free to step away. Business leaders should follow his lead and take proactive measures in their organizations.
The average American’s vacation time rose in the 1980s and 1990s but began to decline after that. It fell from 20.3 days in 2000 to 16.2 in 2015. That is more than four days, or what amounts to a week’s worth of vacation. In 2016, for the first time in history, more than half of Americans (55%) failed to use all of their vacation time.
At a recent all-hands meeting, Okta CEO Todd McKinnon made an unusual move in support of his employees’ well-being. Seeing the potential for burnout at his high-growth software company and perhaps sensing widespread reluctance to use vacation time, he first of all shared plans for his own upcoming vacation. But then he took it a step further—asking employees to write him personally and share their vacation plans. The response was overwhelming: over a thousand employees reached out to him.
The lesson for other business leaders is two-fold. First, your employees will not feel free to use their vacation time to the fullest unless you model that same behavior. Second, you must treat vacation time as an investment in their well-being, thus in the company’s well-being. In making a personal appeal, as opposed to letting HR handle the matter, McKinnon made it clear that time away is more than a benefit; it is vital to the company’s long-term health.
Will a vacation help or hurt your career?
One issue preventing some from leaving for vacation is concern that taking a break will send the wrong message to management. Employees worry they will be seen as less committed or ambitious, thus slowing their career advancement. Research finds the opposite is true: taking a vacation can increase your chances of getting a raise or promotion.
A minimum of eleven business days of vacation per year appears to be essential. People who use fewer than ten days of their vacation have a 34.6% chance of receiving a bonus or raise over three years. For people who use more than ten days, that likelihood goes up to 65.4%. (These statistics establish correlation and not causation, of course. But the more significant takeaway is that taking a vacation will not hurt your career.)
It is important to point out that not all vacations are created equal. Research cited by the Harvard Business Review finds that travel stress arising from poor planning can erase all of the potential benefits from time away. The following steps greatly increase the chances that your vacation will bring renewed happiness and energy:
- plan a month in advance and prepare your co-workers
- leave the local area; the further, the better
- connect with a local host or a knowledgeable guide
- set all of your travel details before leaving
Planning well in advance with your team is critical. Employees may be reluctant to take a longer break because they fear that co-workers will be overwhelmed or that key projects will go off track. Delegating is hard work but worth it in the long run. It frees you to go away with a clear conscience and is an opportunity to develop new abilities in your team.
The importance of unplugging
Getting away physically is one thing; fully unplugging mentally is another. According to one survey, unfortunately, Americans have trouble turning the switch off even when they do get away: 82% admitted to doing at least some work while on vacation, and 70% took a call from a colleague or client.
Seeing how difficult it is for many of us to unplug entirely, one CEO is offering his employees a bonus for staying offline during vacation. Making such a financial investment, he says, demonstrates concretely that quality time away is essential, not just for the health of individual employees but for the health of the company.
What about start-ups?
Established companies can afford the luxury of an extended vacation; you might be thinking: but what about a start-up or a young company still struggling to be profitable? The recent experience of one of my executive coaching clients shows how getting away should be a priority for everyone—and exemplifies many of the lessons discussed above.
As the founder of a young start-up, my client was reluctant to go on vacation at a critical time for his company. Even the thought of going away made him anxious. Yet, he fought through the anxiety and put in the proper planning. He tied up loose ends, prepared his team, and delegated essential tasks. As a result, he was able to fully unplug during a week-long trip to Greece. He returned rejuvenated and inspired, with a clear vision of where he wanted to take the company. That vision came to him naturally on the plane ride back. Now he has committed to making vacation mandatory for himself and his employees.
Learning to set aside time for rest, recovery, and play is not a luxury but an essential leadership skill. The lockdowns and travel constraints of the pandemic deprived us of the necessary pleasure of seeing and exploring new things and places. Even as we get back to building our companies, we should not neglect the value of quality downtime. We must give ourselves permission to get away and empower our employees to do the same.