by Lance Wiedower
On average, Americans leave nearly four days of vacation time unused every year, something the U.S. Travel Association has noticed. Katie Denis is a senior program director for the Association’s “Project: Time Off,” an effort to convince Americans to use more of their vacation time. She’s heard the argument that America doesn’t need to be France in terms of doling out vacation days. France, in fact, might have a reputation for liberal vacation policies, but all European Union countries require employers to give at least four paid vacation weeks per year.
Denis, by the way, laughs at the notion Americans are pushing to be more like France. She says a better comparison is an America from 15 years ago when U.S. workers used four more vacation days per year on average than today.
The U.S. Travel Association certainly believes there is a problem, and it’s one that starts at the top. While many managers polled say they understand the importance of taking vacations, they don’t always set a good example.
“The ability to demonstrate leadership is important,” Denis says. “Managers can be some of the worst modelers. It’s a ‘do as I say not as I do’ model. And people err on the side of caution and do what the person ahead of them will do.”
And if that means management only uses one week of an allotted three weeks off, well, employees are more apt to follow that lead.
Project: Time Off has tracked the amount of vacation time Americans use dating back to 1970. And for 30 years, the amount remained roughly the same at an average of 20 days of vacation time used each year. But then in 2000 that trend began to drop, and over the ensuing 15 years hit an average of 16 days used per year.
So what happened?
Denis says her team at first thought the data would show a decrease beginning around 2008 with the Great Recession. But the earlier decline came at a time when technology began making it harder for employees to unplug at night, on the weekend, and, possibly worse, during vacations.
“You don’t leave the office when you leave the office anymore,” she says. “Technology has made us feel we can’t disconnect even when we try to. It’s the idea that work will pile up while I’m away.”
Bruce Elliott is a manager of compensation and benefits for the Society for Human Resource Management who focuses on employee benefits such as wellness, financial, and retirement programs; health insurance; and paid time off. While technology is a first-world concern, Elliott has lived in Europe and the Middle East, and he says by far Americans are the worst at taking vacation time in his observation.
He says it’s time that companies get creative to encourage employees to use allotted time off. One of those ways is the unlimited vacation model, something Elliott said only about 2 percent of American employers use. Those companies are usually involved in technology, such as Netflix. Companies that employ young creatives find it attractive, too. And in Memphis, agencies such as Archer Malmo, which employs some 200 here and in Austin, Texas, are finding creative ways to encourage employees to take time off.
Russ Williams, CEO of Archer Malmo, pays attention to what his current employees want in a workplace, and that includes vacation time. He observed the trends and what he heard from employees and, at the end of 2015 decided to shift Archer Malmo to a flexible PTO model. That means no more separate vacation days, sick days, or personal time for things such as doctors’ appointments. There is no maximum for days taken in a year, although there is a cap on the amount of consecutive days taken without manager approval. In addition to the flexible PTO model, the offices now close during the last week of the year, a naturally slow time for business over the holidays.
“It all has to do with promoting work-life balance, treating employees like they’re trusted adults, and recognizing the real world,” Williams says. “So, for example, in your life there are some years you need a lot of time off and some years you don’t need any. … If you’re promoting work-life balance and people being accountable to their responsibilities versus the clock, it becomes natural to go to a flexible situation versus a rigid standard.”
There must be a culture of trust for anything like endless vacation or flexible PTO to work, Elliott cautions. If an employee doesn’t really believe he can take a week here, a week there, and a couple days at other times, he won’t do it. Elliott says the move to a PTO model of one bucket for all days off has been steady over the past 10 years. But he cautioned that it doesn’t work for everyone. It’s important that a company culture fit the concept.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” he says. “The younger employees get it immediately. They’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got two weeks between projects so I’ll take a week off.’ What we see with older employees is that they have a little bit of a challenge adapting to the paradigm. The first question they ask after this is announced is, ‘This is wonderful and great, but how much time can I really take?’”
At the end of the day, vacations are good to help employees come back to work refreshed, Elliott says. “We need time to reconnect with families. Research shows when you come back you’re more productive rather than just soldiering on. You might look like a hero with the organization (to not take days off) but what are you doing to your health, and are you reinforcing a culture that could be problematic in retaining employees?”
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