Rather than arm-twisting employees to skip vacation, companies should be forcing employees to take them.
You may have heard about the so-called War Against Christmas. While the idea gets some people hot and bothered, it’s a made-up controversy. Christmas–a secular, consumer-oriented holiday from the start–isn’t going anywhere.
What is all too real, though, is the ongoing War Against Paid Vacation–a war that we are all losing badly, including the managers and leaders who are leading it. Because while the loss of paid vacation seems like a victory for the bottom line (“More work for less pay!”), it’s insanely and literally counterproductive.
I’ll explain at the end of the column why it’s insane for leaders to attempt to kill the concept of paid vacation, but first here are the seven signs that the war is being lost.
1. Lobbyists have successfully blocked mandatory paid vacation.
The last time Congress considered mandatory vacation days was in 2015, when corporate lobbyists got it killed because it would “kill jobs.” This is, of course, an incredibly stupid viewpoint because (obviously) the need to fill-in for vacationing workers would actually create more jobs.
For perspective, the U.S. is the only advanced industrialized nation that doesn’t mandate paid vacation. In France, employees get 30 days. In the U.K., employees get 20 days. Even in workaholic Japan, companies must provide at least 10 days paid vacation. In the U.S., vacation days are at the discretion of the employer. As a result, fully a quarter of American workers–mostly low-wage earners–get no paid vacation whatsoever.
That might be worth it, if it made U.S. workers more productive; in fact, they’re less productive than in other advanced countries.
2. Companies are rapidly replacing employees with contractors.
An increasing number of companies are using independent contractors rather than paid employees. Approximately 25 percent of the U.S. workforce (including so-called gig workers) fall into this category. The trend is marked inside high-tech companies that are rolling in profits and could easily hire permanent employees rather than contractors. At Facebook, for example, the company’s most difficult job–reviewing posts for child pornography–is handled by contractors who, in addition to working in truly horrific conditions, are given none of the benefits that official Facebook employees enjoy. Disgusting.
3. Companies are using paid vacations to offset other expenses.
A friend of mine works for a company that sometimes closes its manufacturing lines due to lack of demand. When they do so, they force their employees to take paid time off to offset their expenses. I recently read about another company that scheduled an afternoon holiday party–and told their employees that they had to use half of a paid vacation day, which they justified by saying that attendance was voluntary. (As everyone knows, “attendance is voluntary” is corporate-speak for “attendance is mandatory.”) Companies can get away with co-opting vacation days for their own purposes because, of course, they’re not mandated to provide them.
4. Companies are foisting vacationers’ work onto co-workers.
In many companies, co-workers pressure their peers (especially long-timers who’ve earn more paid vacation days per year) to not take vacation. Because management constantly pressures employees to “do more with less,” there’s no padding in the schedule to accommodate vacations. This forces co-workers to take on additional work whenever one of their peers is on vacation. The result is “vacation shaming”–making co-workers feel bad and disloyal for exercising their earned paid time off.
5. Companies expect vacationing employees to be on-call.
Back in the day–before mobile computing and smart phones–vacation days were exactly that: vacation. Today, however, it’s not at all unusual for companies to require employees to check-in regularly, or for the employees themselves to voluntarily keep checking in, as a way to counter vacation shaming and prove that they’re properly committed. As a result, many paid vacations become working vacations. Even when employees are allowed to unplug, they’re expected to work extra hours after vacation to catch up on the all work they missed–thus retroactively converting the paid vacation into unpaid time off.
6. Companies have “use it or lose it” vacation day policies.
Many companies no longer allow employees to accrue vacation days from year to year. Instead, employees must use them during the year or they simply go away. Combine this with vacation shaming and bosses who are reluctant to allow workers to take time off, it’s not surprising that between 50 and 75 percent (estimates vary) of U.S. workers don’t use all their paid vacation days. According to a recent study conducted by Celebrity Cruises, some employees have let “upwards of 21 vacation days go to waste.”
7. “Unlimited Paid Vacation” is the (ironic) death-blow.
Many companies are now offering unlimited paid vacation, as if that were a superior perk–much better than a set number of days. However, when employees are pressured into foregoing vacation days and taking vacation is viewed as negative and disloyal, only the most-favored employees will ever dare to actually take those days. For most people, unlimited paid vacation means two or three days a year, at most. The idea is exactly parallel to flextime, which was sold as a more humane alternative to the 9-to-5 workday but which in practice has resulted in the 60-hour work week.
So, there you have it. We are all losing the war against paid vacation, even the leaders and managers who think they’re winning.
Why everyone loses in the war against paid vacation
While the end of vacation as we know it seems like a positive for the bottom line, it’s incredibly counterproductive because it destroys the health of the workers you need to keep your company up and running. The science is undeniable. According to the New York Times, “those who failed to take annual vacations had a 21 percent higher risk of death from all causes and were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack.” And that was just one study; the article quotes several other scientific studies with results that are equally dire.
With healthcare and insurance costs going through the proverbial roof, and with the cost of on-boarding new employees rising every year, leaders and managers should be trying to retain employees and keep them healthy. Under the circumstances, employers should not just make it easy for employees to take vacation, they should actually MAKE employees take vacation. They should also staff appropriate and structure work so that employees can actually take their vacation rather than getting sucked into working extra hours.
Let’s show some real leadership, OK?