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More than half of employees are afraid to take time off for the holidays

Americans still leave half of their vacation time unused—and the end of the year is no exception.

More than half of employees are afraid to take time off for the holidays
[Photos: Joanna Kosinska/Unsplasj; nito100/iStock]

Americans are getting a little better about taking time off. But they’re probably not doing it during the frenetic holiday season.

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A 2019 report from the U.S. Travel Association found that U.S. employees are taking a bit more vacation. But even though some employees feel like taking their paid time off doesn’t make them look like slackers, the overall picture isn’t anything to write home about. Americans still leave half of their vacation time unused, the report found.

That may be particularly true around the end-of-year holidays, according to a 2018 report by West Monroe Partners, a management consulting firm. More than half (51%) of employees were uncomfortable asking their manager for time off during the holidays. Roughly one in five said there was simply too much work to be done.

Why we say “no” to PTO

That culture of fear is problematic, says Mike Hughes, managing director at West Monroe. The expectation that employees will work through the holidays can be irreversibly detrimental to your company’s productivity and could cause employees’ well-being to suffer if they truly need or want time to be with their families or manage this busy time of year.

“That dissatisfaction or discomfort in asking for that [time off] could have an impact on longer-term engagement, longer-term employability of people,” he says.

Organizational psychologist Marc Prine, PhD, warns that the problem is not failing to take time off at a particular time of year, but the culture that makes employees feel it’s unsafe to even ask. “The problem is that burnout and the exhaustion of always being on and never taking any time away, that actually leads to active disengagement and has a big implication on productivity, profitability—a lot of these things that go with having an engaged workforce,” he says.

Prine actually likes working during the times when others are off, as he finds himself more productive. And he’s not alone. West Monroe’s study found that employees at offices that close additional days during the holidays are significantly more likely to report higher productivity during the time they’re in the office (42% compared to 17% in offices that don’t close).

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Depending on your industry, the end-of-year holidays may be a good time to do strategic or creative work without the phones ringing because so many people are off, he says. “There’s been a big push toward the idea of deep work and meaningful work and turning off all the notifications and turning off all those other things that slow us down and bog us down,” he says. This might be the perfect time to do that type of work.

Take the right time

But such an emphasis on taking the time you need may also require your company to take a close look at its culture and find out why vacation is so frowned upon, Hughes says. In some cases, examining workflow and backup systems in addition to training managers to encourage employees to take time off may help make cultural change possible.

It’s when you never take time off because you’re afraid to do so that negative consequences occur. Employees can become burned out, disengaged, and resentful, says psychologist and executive coach Richard Orbé-Austin, PhD. The key to maximizing the benefits of your time off is to take it when you most need it, he says.

“If you have a very intense project that you recently completed . . . or something that’s caused a higher level of stress, it might be good, almost counterintuitively, to take a vacation after those particular events happen,” Orbé-Austin says.

West Monroe also found that more than half of employees feel unmotivated or overwhelmed when returning to work after the holidays even if they do take time off. The key to addressing those feelings may be allowing workers greater flexibility to blend their work and personal lives at this time if they need to, Hughes says. Of the employees whose companies allow them to work remotely (51%), the overwhelming majority—91%—said they feel just as productive when doing so. So, encouraging more employees to work from home or flex their hours could be a good solution.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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