The importance and benefits of taking time off from work are well-documented. Without downtime, you and your team are likely less creative and more likely to burn out.
But Americans just can’t seem to unplug. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of vacation days U.S. workers took declined steadily from a long-term average of 20.3 days to 16. And while the number of vacation days taken ticked up to 16.8 in 2016, 54% of employees have unused vacation time, according to a report by the Project: Time Off Coalition, a group of businesses, mostly in tourism, retail, and related sectors.
Companies have experimented with different methods to get employees to take more time off. In recent years, some have experimented with “unlimited vacation,” which removes arbitrary limits on the number of vacation days an employee can take, with mixed results. Kickstarter found that the policy actually resulted in employees taking less vacation time.
When Paying Employees To Take Vacation Isn’t Enough
Social media sharing platform Buffer has experimented with various vacation policies, including unlimited vacation time. In 2015, the company also found that unlimited vacation wasn’t as effective as they had hoped and began paying employees $1,000 to take vacation time. Even so, 57% of the company’s employees had taken less than 15 days of vacation time. Then, in September 2016, the company began a new policy: Every employee must take a minimum of three weeks of vacation.
Managers are tasked with monitoring employees’ time off and working with them to schedule vacation time if the employee has not done so. Based on the data so far, the company estimates that 56% of employees will have taken 15 days or more of vacation by the end of the year.
“I think that the switch from ‘unlimited’ to ‘minimum’ was huge, and we heard as much from our employees who were slightly confused, or they thought it was vague, and they felt a lot more comfortable,” says Hailley Griffis, Buffer communications specialist.
More Than A Nice-To-Have
Making vacation “mandatory” is a good idea, says Sharon DeLay, founder of HR consultancy GO-HR. Some industries already mandate time off for a variety of reasons. In addition to stress reduction and improvements to quality of work, ensuring that employees take time away from their jobs is also a good hedge against an employee having too much control over a particular area or losing institutional knowledge when the employee leaves.
“They use that [time] to go in and make sure that they can quality control check the employee, making sure there’s nothing going on there that shouldn’t be happening. It’s really risk management,” she says.
Open-source artificial intelligence company Skymind also has a mandatory vacation policy. CEO Chris Nicholson emphasizes the importance of time off to the company’s 25 employees, who average three weeks off per year. He’s pleased with that level, especially because startup culture can be so intense.
“When you’re in a small boat, everybody who is rowing the boat makes a big difference. Taking a break rowing slows it down. When somebody takes a vacation, sometimes the changes are noticeable,” he says.
To ensure that the boat doesn’t slow down too much, Nicholson says that, where possible, employees step in and take over tasks and projects. DeLay says that kind of cross-training and experience ultimately makes the company stronger because no one person is indispensable—if someone leaves, there are others who know how to do the work, she says.
The Trouble With “Mandatory”
But mandatory vacation is a policy that is enforced more with a carrot than a stick. While manager oversight and modeling from company leaders can spur more workers to take their vacation time, neither Buffer nor Skymind has penalties for not taking vacation.
DeLay agrees that mandatory vacation is something managers must actively monitor and encourage rather than relying on disciplinary action for noncompliance. Doing so includes understanding business cycles and obstacles employees face in taking their time off—then, addressing them. That includes training employees to take over each other’s roles and having processes in place to ensure that the vacationer doesn’t return to an overwhelming workload, she says. But Nicholson says that the top-down message is typically effective in generating compliance.
“They’re in human relationships with me and my cofounder,” Nicholson says. “When you tell someone to do something enough times and you’re they’re employer, they usually do it.”