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How Can I Make My Employees Take Vacation?

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have recently started a managerial position on a university administrative staff. As the university is state-funded it allows employees to carry-over a certain number of hours of vacation time per year. Upon leaving the university, the employee may cash out unused vacation time and the university is required by law to pay employees for this unused time. As such, many employees simply never take vacation time and stockpile as much as the university time carry-over rules will allow.

Now, I can understand this strategy in terms of "saving up" in case of a layoff and have even begun to implement this strategy to some degree for the very same reasons. There is a long list of employees who have not taken ANY vacation time in years. I am not entirely convinced that people are doing this just to save for a rainy day, but rather are avoiding the use of vacation time because they feel that they "can't", or it is a sign of weakness.

At the end of the day, I don't really care how other people use (or don't use) their vacation time. I am just sick of trying to work with people that are constantly stressed out, burned out, and come to work angry. I have heard a number of employees say things to the effect of "If I have to work 60 hours one week to prepare to be gone for a week, and 60 hours the week I come back to get caught up, then I really haven't had any time off at all. I have just re-arranged my work schedule." I know I can't change the entire work culture and single-handedly save the university, but how can I at least break this habit among my own employees and convince them that it really is OK (actually, necessary) to take some time off once in a while?

I'm a big, big fan of vacation. Employees perform at a higher level when they are rested. Just like you need sleep to function properly, you need some down time as well. I'm such a believer that I would rather have a lower salary and more weeks of vacation than a higher salary with less time off.

You've correctly identified the 3 problems your employees face:

  • Actual dollar costs
  • Social costs
  • Workload costs

Actual Dollar Costs: People respond to costs and the problem is that it's extremely expensive for them to take vacation. First, there's the actual dollar cost. If you make $52,000 a year, than one week's pay is $1,000. Assuming everyone has 3 weeks vacation a year, that's $3,000 a year. if you stay at your job for 10 years (certainly not unheard of in a university setting), that's $30,000 you're throwing away to take time off work. (And that's assuming you get no raises over that 10 year period, which is unrealistic.)

That's a lot of money. No wonder your university has huge vacation liabilities. With a bad economy and the ever present fear of losing your job, it makes fiscal sense to save as much money as you can. These people aren't being stupid, but rather making a fiscally responsible decision--at the cost of a high stress level.

The Fix: This is state/university policy and you're powerless to change it, although I wish you could. Some of these people may find themselves leaving their job as the state or university declares bankruptcy and won't see the money anyway. Feel free to lobby your administration for changes, but since it's state mandated and politicians like to be re-elected and it's undoubtedly popular with the state employees, I have low hopes.

Social Costs: The culture has been "only the weak take time off." While I'm sure people take vacation for things like their brother's wedding, they aren't doing it for a trip to Six Flags or to put in a new garden. The "cost" of presenting yourself as weak is too high. If you lose your coworkers' respect and think you'll lose your boss's respect (which was probably true in the past), it's very expensive to take time off.

The Fix: You're the boss. First of all, you need to set the example by taking vacation. (I note that you're already starting to stockpile.) You need to do this by not moaning and groaning about what you'll miss when you're out. Any such moans and groans should be done privately.

You also need to address the stress level head on. As a group, tell your employees that they need time off. That it's healthy for them. That you will reward people who take time off. That it will increase their productivity if they are well rested and relaxed.

Also, make sure you remind people that vacation can be taken in small increments. Taking an afternoon off may do wonders for morale and won't be as complicated as being out of the office for a whole week.

Make sure that people aren't punished by taking time off. When you're making decisions on how to allocate work, or who to assign to projects, don't let people be punished when they take time off. This is actually harder than it sounds. It's too easy to fall into the trap of "well, Stephanie didn't produce as much as John did," because Stephanie was out of town for a week.

Workload Costs: If you are expected to get the full 40 hours of work done either in advance or do it when you get home, all the benefit of relaxation is taken away from you. It's just high stress at a high cost and who needs that?

The Fix: This is definitely a complicated fix. The work still needs to get done. However, once again, you're the manager. You need to figure out what actually needs to get done every week and what doesn't. Will it kill the department if report X is skipped two weeks out of the year?

I realize that last statement was horror inducing. Of course it will kill everyone if something critical is SKIPPED. Oh hogwash. Not everything needs to always be done. The world will not end if something is skipped occasionally. Not everything, mind you, but somethings are not as important as we pretend they are.

When you've got a culture where extra hard work is praised and people who take time off are seen as weak, you can guarantee that people have created the illusion that everything they do is absolutely critical.

You need to figure out what is critical and what is not. You need to assure people that they won't be held accountable for 40 hours of work when they take 40 hours off.

Now, it's also unreasonable to expect the coworkers to jump in and do the vacationing employee's work and that will further exacerbate the culture issue. So, you can't just evaluate what is critical about one person's work, you need to evaluate what is critical from everyone's job.

If John has 4 main tasks and he wants to take vacation, you need to not only identify which one can be skipped for a week, but which tasks of Stephanie's, Jorge's and Rachel's tasks can be skipped as well, so they can do John's critical ones.

This concept will take some getting used to and your employees will rebel. They are convinced that everything they do is critical and that their coworkers can't do it as well.

You need to make sure they are cross trained. You need to work to build team work. You need to make sure there is no downside to vacation usage. A lot of stuff for you to do, but that's why the boss makes more money.

However, will any of this be enough to override the economic incentives of saving vacation? Probably a little bit, but not completely. Still, if you can lower the social and workload costs, you may just get an employee or two who isn't constantly stressed out.

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