How can employers encourage employees to take vacation?

Last February, Vancouver-based iQmetrix Software Development Corp. gave employees a weeklong all-expense paid vacation to Hawaii.

Adopting a theme of personal development, the company created a vacation itinerary that incorporated activities for the mind, body and spirit, says Krystal Ho, director of corporate relations. Staff members attended team-building workshops and took part in activities such as surfing, paddle boarding, horseback riding, painting, dance classes and breathing exercises. They also camped on the grounds of their hotel and, every night, there was a dance party, says Ho.

The company organizes a trip each year. According to Ho, the annual trips help strengthen the organization by bringing together employees from different offices and allowing them to reflect on the prior year and think about the future.

Read: Trip to Mexico among Calgary startup’s efforts to boost engagement

“It brings us together as an organization and the buzz this trip creates is crazy. It’s everyone’s favourite time of the year,” says Ho.

The company isn’t alone in offering paid trips to employees. Every year, Montreal-based Groupe GSoft Inc. treats employees to a holiday excursion. Last year, 180 people went on a Caribbean cruise for three days.

Employees get a break from work and a chance to build relationships not only with their team but also those they don’t work with on a daily basis, says Charles Fortin-Larose, account executive at one of GSoft’s business groups. People determined their own schedules during the cruise but they also had to attend team-building activities, he says.

“Everyone loves it and everyone’s waiting for the trip this year,” says Fortin-Larose. “You spend time with your boss and colleagues informally, get to know them deeper, and you come back to the office energized.”

Read: Capgemini launches council to engage millennial staff

Fortin-Larose thinks more companies will start seeing the appeal of organizing employee getaways. “It’s a great way to get everyone on board . . .. [Employees] feel like if they work hard, the company will benefit from that. They feel like they’re a member of the family. If the company crashes, everyone crashes. If the company wins, everyone wins.”

Encouraging the recharge

While company getaways can be popular, there are many ways organizations can encourage employees to take time off. At Epic Systems Corp. in Verona, Wis., the software company offers employees one month of paid leave after every five years of service and encourages them to travel by subsidizing trip expenses, including flight costs, says Jennifer Peterson, who works in the company’s human resources department.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to get a block of time off where you can recharge and get reinvigorated,” says Peterson. “Five years is a long time to be in an organization, and it’s good to get that break.”

Read: A look at long-service leave in Australia

According to Peterson, almost 10 per cent of the company’s workforce took a sabbatical in 2016.

“We compete with a lot of tech companies from California and other parts of the country, so having this benefit is a great recruitment tool for us,” says Peterson.

Employers reap many benefits from employee vacations, says Lisa Taylor, president of Challenge Factory Inc., a human resources consultancy firm in Toronto. “Having a break and being able to change routine encourages creativity. It gives people the opportunity to see what’s happening from a distance and get a different perspective.”

In addition to increasing productivity, vacations also improve employee well-being by allowing them to reconnect with family and friends, says Taylor. She notes employers that encourage employees to get away send a clear message that their health matters.

Read: 33% of employees don’t unplug from work during vacation: survey

In the short term, vacations address the pervasive issue of employee burnout, says Arla Day, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“We have employees engaging in presenteeism, and if you’re that burned out that you can’t function effectively but you’re still coming to work and getting some tasks done, you’re not working to your maximum potential.”

The long-term rewards are even more substantial, and employers that support employees to take vacations are more likely to create a psychologically healthy workplace, says Day. She notes building a positive culture pays off because it helps retain employees and boosts the company’s public image. “I can’t say I respect my employees and care and support them if I don’t encourage them to take care of themselves and have a good balance, and that includes vacation,” says Day.

Addressing the non-financial barriers

The idea of paying for employees’ vacations isn’t new, says Taylor, noting she had previously worked for a large company that helped with travel costs.

And while it’s a nice gesture for employers to help pay for vacations, the offer falls flat if employees still find themselves burdened at a workplace that doesn’t support a work-life balance, says Day. “Sometimes, when people are trying to create healthy workplaces, they think of gimmicky things. What’s going to get people on board? What can I throw money at? It’s not that they’re bad. It’s if you’re doing that without the underlying support, respect and trust, then they’re going to have very nominal, short-lived effects.”

Read: 37% of Canadians cite improved work-life balance: survey

People may hesitate to go on vacation, says Taylor, because of the pressures that come with today’s workplace. Many employees, she notes, think taking time off will have a negative effect on their careers. “They think they’re going to be seen as not being as committed as someone else or there’s a project they’re going to miss out on that demonstrates their capabilities. There’s a lot of pressure in the workplace [for employees] to continue to perform,” says Taylor.

In fact, research has found companies that have open vacation policies don’t necessarily succeed in encouraging employees to take more time off, says Taylor. She notes that despite employers’ good intentions, people still feel implicit pressure from the workplace to not take too much time off.

Besides an organization’s policies, workplace culture is another big factor in determining whether employees feel comfortable taking vacation, says Day. “It may not even be explicit. It may not be my supervisor saying, ‘You have to stay.’ . . . It may just be the general feeling that none of us take our vacation and we shouldn’t take our vacation because it’s frowned upon by our boss who works really hard, so it would be in poor form for me to go off,” says Day.

Read: Should Canada follow France’s lead in clamping down on off-hours email?

Employees often feel guilty about their work going unattended or leaving it for their colleagues to take care of, says Day. So it’s important for organizations to be proactive and ensure their leaders set an example, she notes. “If I tell everyone, ‘You need to go take your vacation,’ . . . but I haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years, then they’re going to look at me and go, ‘Yeah, we don’t really believe you.’ . . . There’s this notion that if the boss is not doing it, then why would it be good for me?”

Employers can structure work plans to avoid deterring employees from going on vacation, says Taylor. “Many people avoid taking vacation because it’s the worst feeling in the world to have had a great couple of days or a great week or two and then come back to 800 unanswered emails,” she says.

Managers can alleviate workload pressures by training staff to understand each other’s work, using technology in order to share departmental information more easily among employees and praising those who support each other, says Taylor. It’s important, she notes, for employers to recognize not just employees who cover for others when they’re away but also those who plan ahead and delegate tasks before they go on vacation.

Read: Employers and employees disagree on right to request flexible working

Employers can also reduce workload uncertainty by having regular conversations with staff about their vacation plans and being clear about heavy work periods when they prefer employees to not take time off, says Taylor.

At iQMetrix, the company helps lighten the load during the two-month paid sabbaticals it offers to employees after seven years of service by deactivating their accounts to keep them from checking email. “It’s a time for people to reflect on what they’re doing in their lives, go do experiences and not worry about their financial situation,” says Ho.

Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

Get a PDF of this article.