Did you know that the United States is the only developed nation that offers zero federally mandated paid parental leave?
Forget for a moment that this is a critical time for both parents to bond with their child, paid parental leave is also in the best interests of your company. I just had a baby, and trust me when I tell you that there is no way new parents can perform at anywhere near their peak when they wake up every three hours to feed an infant the night before.
But this post is not really about the backwards parental leave policies adopted by the majority of businesses, states, and our federal government (though I promise to cover that topic in an upcoming post). Here, I will cover the many advantages that employees and businesses experience when people step away from work—no matter the reason.
Earlier this year, I took an additional six weeks of paid parental leave to bond with my baby daughter. I’m fortunate that the employee-first culture of 15Five supports my growth as a whole person in this way. They also provide a mandatory 3 weeks of vacation to every employee. Mandatory! Because—and I know this sounds crazy—the majority of people have to be forced to step away.
A Glassdoor report found that most people who receive paid time off only take about half (54%) of it. Fear is the overriding reason; fear that projects won’t get finished, that deadlines won’t get met, or that critical details on a release will be overlooked. Or worse, that the company will manage just fine without us and we’ll lose our jobs.
This stress is only exacerbated in those days before vacation when we mount a Herculean effort to clear our desks, answer emails and tie up loose ends, as well as in those first days after vacation when we spend our time unburying ourselves from the work that has accumulated in our absence.
But a physical and psychological toll arises from not taking a break. The results from the famed 1992 Framingham Heart Study still hold true: men who don’t take vacations increase their risk of heart attacks by 30%, and women increase theirs by 50%! Chronic stress can lead to additional problems including depression, headaches, and immune system deficiencies.
If these costs of forfeiting your vacation aren’t convincing, then how about the flip side as inspiration… people who take vacations are more likely to get promoted and get raises than those who don’t. No doubt because they return to work with less stress and more energy and creativity than those who continue to grind away.
Why, then, do we take so little time off—and feel so guilty about it when we do?
I’ll admit that I have rarely taken an extended vacation and when I do, I still check-in like most other people. Had I not been blessed with the mantle of fatherhood, I may never have experienced the incredible freedom and inspiration that comes from completely stepping away from work.
During my paternity leave, in addition to being able to unwind from my job (albeit while changing diapers), I was able to get enough distance from work to get the viewpoint I needed to really see our product, culture, and content in a whole new light.
This was not intentional mind you. I would be doing my new papa business and the ideas would discover me. I was only able to get a download about what company culture truly is, by being absent from the culture.
This is something that never would have popped up while I was immersed in the minutiae of my day to day. Because I was able to remove myself completely for several weeks, so many fresh ideas surfaced. While I was sad initially to leave my little girl, I was also excited to return to work and dive into these opportunities.
The problem is that paid time off is not really time off. In our always-connected-even-during-vacation society, 66% of employees report working; sending or checking emails, participating in a conference call or even hardcore working on a report or project. And things are getting worse! Three years ago the number of employees half-working was “only” 61%.
But what toll does it take to skip vacation or to only unwind halfway, feeling guilty even as you do? There’s an economic impact on employees that is often overlooked. According to the U.S. Travel Association, Americans give up more than 200 million vacation days each year by working. That’s $66 billion in lost benefits, and for individual workers, that comes to a loss of two full vacation days per year.
Regardless of your paid leave or vacation policies, everyone understands how time away helps employees. What many companies may not realize is how time off benefits the company. Today’s businesses understand, at least conceptually, that their success relies on employee engagement and creativity, both of which are enhanced by some time off.
Slowly, we’re moving away from the idea that productivity is measured in hours worked, with employers wanting employees to work as many hours as possible. Now, forward-thinking businesses understand that for employees to deliver quality, innovative work, they should be treated well, given the tools needed, and held accountable for success.
Part of treating them well means attending to their emotional and physical needs, including providing essential downtime without guilt, with the idea that they will return to work with fresh viewpoints and renewed enthusiasm for their jobs. A recent study confirms this: when employees took a week or more off for vacation, this increased employee engagement and those people developed a stronger work ethic.
Many companies have vacation policies, but as we’ve seen, employees may be reluctant to take that time. Companies are trying to remedy this issue using a variety of tactics, including:
• No-email vacation policies, where technology can block emails to ensure a vacationing employee is not interrupted
• A bonus is given to employees who take at least five days of vacation without checking emails and who share vacation photos upon return
• Offering paid sabbaticals to employees
• Broadening family leave programs
• Providing mandatory vacation policies
The truth is that unless your workplace culture supports taking vacations and paid parental leave, your specific policy won’t matter. Your policy—and you as manager— must model the behavior you want to see in the office. If you as a manager, sigh in exasperation because an employee is on vacation and will miss a meeting, if you text her or allow colleagues to contact her, you’re helping to perpetuate the no-leave-without-guilt culture—not just for the employee who is away, but for everyone else at the organization.
And if you don’t take time off yourself, if you don’t establish the expectation that others do the same, you are still encouraging others to skip vacations or to work while away.
On the other hand, if you declare vacation time as sacred, and demonstrate it as such, showing no shame for taking time off, you send a powerful message that this break is an important part of being in the best condition to be successful at work.
Here are some tips for creating a pro-vacation culture:
1) Discuss employee vacation plans during your weekly check-in—especially before popular holiday and vacation times, with the assumption that time should be taken off, and the conversation is designed to determine how to make the transition smooth.
2) Determine which colleague(s) will provide coverage for the vacationing employee, and make sure that’s communicated to the team.
3) Create an autoresponder (out of office email), with the backup employee listed as an emergency contact.
4) For you and any vacationers, block out time on the first day back to work to wade through emails.
5) After an employee’s vacation, build time to chat about it in the next 1-on-1 meeting. What was surprising about the vacation? What did they notice or learn? Encourage the employee to discuss any insights—work or otherwise—that cropped up during the time away.
Vacations and paid parental leave clearly help employees and companies in myriad ways. So encourage your employees to take the time they need to refresh, rejuvenate, and bond with family. Be sure to take that time yourself, not merely to model desirable behavior, but to treasure the long-term benefits of some well deserved you time.
David Mizne is Marketing Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David’s articles have also appeared on The Next Web & TalentCulture. Follow him @davidmizne.