How managers can help their people take more effective vacations

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Do your employees feel vacation-deprived?

Perhaps they’re not taking all the paid vacation they’re entitled to.

They’re not alone. According to a 2015 survey, more than half of Canadians (55%) consider themselves vacation-deprived. Canadians on average will take only 14 of their 17.3 vacation days, leaving about 31 million unused vacation days on the table.

How can this be? Canadians almost universally believe that vacations are important to their happiness. Medical research shows that regular vacations contribute significantly to benefits like better cardiovascular health, decreased depression, reduced stress, and improved productivity. And let’s not forget the restorative effect of renewed contact with family and friends.

Work hard and work some more

Yet, for nearly a third of Canadians (32%), work scheduling was the number one reason for not taking paid vacation time. Other financial commitments, like housing or debt (29%), came second, and personal and family scheduling ranked third at 24%. One million plus Canadians had not taken a vacation in over 15 years.

For employers focused on the long-term productivity and profitability of their organizations, these statistics are not good news. Progressive employers know that encouraging employees to take their vacation time is a cost-effective way of promoting productivity.

With relaxed and recharged employees, firms have decreased presenteeism, lower staff turnover, and reduced recruiting and onboarding costs.

But not all Canadian firms have gotten the memo.

The ‘performance culture’ and other obstacles to vacations

“In the last ten years, I’ve seen a progression towards the intensification of work,” says Marie-Hélène Chèvrefils, president of Evo Consulting, a Montreal-based consultancy in human resources and organizational development. “More emphasis is placed on performance at all costs.”

She adds that, this ‘performance culture’ means people do not take their vacations because they want to gain the esteem of their group and show how dedicated and professional they are. This behaviour tends to get stronger the higher one rises in the hierarchy.

You’re irreplaceable and that’s not a good thing

Employees may also turn down vacation time because the organization does not have mechanisms in place to re-distribute tasks during a person’s absence. As a result, employees have to work the equivalent of two weeks in one to tie up loose ends before they go on vacation, and then do it again when they return to a chaotic desk and scary email inbox. For some people, a vacation is not worth all that effort.

5 ways managers can help their people take effective vacations

While personal circumstances can also keep people from taking their paid vacation (tight household budgets, a mediocre summer season, or no partner with whom to spend the time off), a pro-vacation organization strives to ensure its people can disconnect safely from their jobs so they can come back relaxed and energized. Here are five ways these firms and managers do it.

1) Adopt a clear pro-vacation policy.

Naturally, senior management has to be committed to a pro-vacation policy. Through coaching or training, senior managers can be sensitized to the personal and corporate benefits of vacations.

“It’s not just about fatigue,” says Chèvrefils. “It’s about getting perspective on what we’ve accomplished, helping our creativity, and looking at our self-management during the difficult situations we’ve lived through in the company.”

2) Set the example.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took two months of paternity leave, it sent “a very clear, very strong message to inspire people to take vacations and also to change the culture,” says Chèvrefils.

Managers set the tone for what an employee can and cannot do according to the codes of the corporate culture and team. When you take a vacation and talk about how you benefited from it, you set the example for your people.

3) Follow up on vacation planning.

Find out your team’s vacation plans. While some periods of the year may not be optimal for taking vacations, do not accept “it’s not a good time” as an excuse. Make sure your people have scheduled their time off.

For busy vacation periods like the summer, meet with your team far in advance to ensure that priorities are well taken care of and company operations are not compromised. Who will replace the vacationing teammate? Who will be responsible for deliverables? Create a mutually agreeable plan of action that gives both the team and the vacationer peace of mind.

Some organizations may hesitate at the cost or hassle of temporarily replacing a vacationing colleague. But, Chèvrefils says, why not regard the absence as an opportunity to “help develop staff to build new skills while they’re replacing people on vacation.” The person’s new skills increase employability while offering a career challenge − and the company benefits from the expanded capacity of its staff.

4) Set boundaries.

A real vacation means not having to work. At all. And yet, you may have to re-connect with your vacationing team member.

So develop an agreed-upon schedule with your team for when that contact can be made. In case of a real emergency, keep the interruption to your employee’s vacation time to a minimum.

5) Talk up the vacation.

Leadership needs to promote the advantages of time off. “The key word is communication,” says Chèvrefils. “Don’t be afraid to start a dialogue with your people about the fact that it’s beneficial to take a vacation. Discuss why they’re taking them or not taking them, with a view to maximizing the vacations taken.”


1. Canadians leaving an average of 3 vacation days unused, according to's 2016 "Vacation Deprivation" survey. October 19, 2016. [Cited 2017-01-23]

2. Health Net Inc. Road Trip! Health Net Points Out the Health Benefits of Vacations. [Cited 2016-04-19]