“People see their jobs as stress-creating, and employers simply aren’t doing enough to help,” says Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard Chan School. Lots of research has been done on how detrimental workplace stress is to employee’s health, and how vacation time also contributes to their job (and life) satisfaction, and even their professional success. A Gallup study even showed a strong correlation between those that took vacation days and a raise.
Despite these statistics, more and more studies are finding that Americans are taking fewer vacation days than ever before. Over the past 15 years, Americans have taken a week less of vacation on average than in previous years. So why aren’t Americans taking the vacations they deserve, and what can organizations and HR teams do to encourage their employees to take a well-deserved and needed break?
Why Employees Can’t Get a Break
Many factors contribute to workplace stress. Common stress factors include long working hours, job insecurity, and a lack of health insurance policies in place. Another important factor contributing to stress is not only long working hours, but the lack of control of being able to schedule their time in accordance with other life commitments, such as children, aging parents, and personal health responsibilities such as doctor’s appointments and even regular exercise.
Almost two-thirds of those polled said they worked overtime and on weekends, and 25% worked 50 or more hours a week.
It’s not just these factors that contribute to workplace stress, but also particular industries as well. According to a poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s School of Public Health, employees most affected by high levels of stress are those in the retail and construction industries in the United States. It’s unsurprising that the retail industry would be ranked first, as the nature of the work entails working on holidays and weekends, and a limited ability to control one’s hours.One obvious solution to the problem would be giving employees more control over their work schedules, and even more importantly, encourage more vacation time. This is challenging in the American workplace, where the average vacation time in 2015 was just 16.2 days compared to 20.3 days in 2000. That was also the lowest number of vacation days in the past 30 years!
US Vacation days sunk to an all-time low in 2015.
Why are Americans so overworked, and why can’t they just take a break in an age of greater workplace productivity due to technology (think smartphones, the internet, Slack and Skype)? Unfortunately, some employees, especially managers, feel that this technology actually causes them to work more hours, since they now have the ability to check emails at night and on weekends. Others point to the fact that they never know when they’ll need those extra days, so they try to save them for a rainy day.
Americans, particularly managers, also suffer from cultural messages which tell them that taking vacation time shows a lack of dedication to their job.
And when managers demonstrate this type of behavior, the hidden message is: “I shouldn’t take vacation time. His job is even more important than mine, and he’s not taking vacation. I shouldn’t either.” This attitude can have an effect on the manager’s entire team.
In this respect, the US could stand to learn from its fellow Europeans, who generally take at least four weeks of paid vacation and are known for having a better work-life balance. The French government, for example, has instituted a 35-hour work week since 2000. In recent years, legislators felt that employees weren’t fully disconnecting on holidays, and the French government responded by giving French workers the right to not answer email when away from the office, a policy instituted in 2017. As Benoit Hamon, a member of Parliament said: “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash.”
More Vacation Equals More Money
More and more evidence are mounting to show that vacation isn’t just a luxury, but a necessary part of workplace development and growth, which translates into better productivity and job satisfaction.
But the benefits go much further than this. Let’s return to that Gallup study that we mentioned earlier. The study showed a strong correlation between those that took 11 or more vacation days and got a raise in the last three years. Unsurprisingly, it found that these employees are also happier.
What HR Teams and Organizations Can Do
A few US companies have realized the problem and have started offering monetary incentives to change the cultural perception of vacation in the United States.
Some organizations, such as Hubspot and GE, tackle the problem by offering unlimited vacation policies. Others, such as Evernote, pay employees to take vacations with one condition: that they not contact the office while on vacation.
Another approach is to pay for employee’s vacations, either with a voucher or by offering vacation packages. This solves two major challenges of vacations: cost and planning. This is particularly true for small business employees, who may be captive to a smaller budget for vacation expenses and unable to benefit from employee vacation benefits packages available at larger companies. These employees also may not realize the benefits of taking a vacation with fewer amenities but instead being able to take a vacation at least annually.
A study of 1500 adults in the Netherlands has shown that vacations only reduce stress and contribute to higher energy levels afterwards if they are well-planned and not stressful. Vacation stress can include planning details involved with transportation, not being familiar with the location, and having to remember various details for younger children or older members of the family.
The study found that employees only returned to work happier and less stressed if they had been on a vacation which had low levels of stress. These employees also returned to work with more energy and a more positive outlook on life.
How can you ensure that your employee’s well-deserved vacation is as stress-free as possible? The same study found that figuring out the details before, or better yet, enlisting the help of a travel agent to do it for them, contributed significantly to lower stress levels. Another factor was planning for the trip well in advance – even a month or more before the trip. Another suggestion was to go farther away than a local vacation, since the study found that vacationers were happier after travelling outside of their home country. Lastly, having the knowledge of a local host or a knowledgeable friend also made the trip much less stressful.
An employee benefits package like the one offered by Last Minute Travel Club can offer a worthwhile alternative to finding and planning their own deals. These discounted travel options make it possible for employees to plan their own vacations yet enjoy the employee travel benefits available to them, which include discounts on hotels, flights, rental cards, activities such as theme park tickets for families. These benefits can even extend to the types of vacation an employee may choose, such as a cruise, which often offers a wide variety of activities on the boat itself without the need for additional planning.
The Best Way to Get Away
Employees may perceive vacations as a luxury that are only available for the very wealthy, when in reality they are available to anyone with the ability to budget or with access to the right employee travel benefits. Research has shown that well-planned vacations outside the country are necessary to ensure the maximum benefits. The challenge organizations have is encouraging their employees to take these needed vacations, while changing the perception of vacation as something that is a requirement rather than an option.
More and more organizations are answering this need with creative solutions, which include monetary incentives, such as stipends, vacation packages, and unlimited vacation policies. It might still take some time before Americans realize the value of vacations as much as their European counterparts. In the meantime, though, these solutions can help employees discover the best way to unplug and return to work with better ideas, a fresh perspective, and even perhaps a future pay raise.