By Sunny Wang
When was the last time you took a vacation? Let me rephrase that. When was the last time you took a vacation without thinking about work or checking work emails? I would not be surprised if some of you answered, “Never.”
The United States is known in other parts of the world, especially Europe, as a nation of people who are just not taking enough vacation. Below is a map of minimum mandatory paid vacation days around the world (Wikipedia). Apparently, there is no labor law in the United States mandating employers give any paid vacation days to their employees — meaning zero days is actually an option.
This is in sharp contrast to the social policy dominating Europe, which typically results in more generous benefits than what you see in the United States. As you can see in the map, European countries mandate at least 11 days, and anywhere up to 28 days, of paid vacation days. You can find similar trends when considering other employee benefits. For instance, among the world’s more advanced economies, the United States stands alone in not mandating paid maternity leave for new mothers.
Despite the current state of these federal mandates (or lack thereof) in the United States, access to these types of benefits remains a very high priority for American workers. Related Glassdoor research shows that approximately 57 percent of people consider these kinds of benefits and perks as among their top considerations before accepting a job, and nearly 80 percent of workers would prefer new or additional benefits over a pay raise.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 76 percent of all workers in the private industry had access to paid vacation benefit as of March 2017. While 97 percent of workers in management, business and financial occupations received paid vacation benefits, the number dropped to an astounding 52 percent for workers in service occupations.
You would think that those more fortunate people would appreciate their benefit and make the best use of their paid leave — but unfortunately, that is not the case. In 2016, 54 percent of employees ended the year with unused time off, according to Project Time Off by the U.S. Travel Association. Even when people are on vacation, very often they still stay connected to work via laptops and mobile phones.
Why are Americans not taking all of their allotted vacation days? Do they love working more than having fun? (Just kidding.) Multiple surveys show that “fear” is what is getting in the way. People fear their work piling up in their absence, that their employers will see them as “slackers,” that no one else can do the work while they are gone, and that their colleagues actually can do the work so well that they are no longer seen as needed. After all, under the “employment at will” policy, you can get fired just because your boss does not like the color of your shoes.
We cannot really blame people for worrying so much about these things or being a little paranoid. Many companies do not have the most encouraging culture or policy when it comes to taking time off. Sometimes you wonder, do employers realize how and why vacations are beneficial to their employees? Some may think it is more productive to keep all of their employees available all of the time — which is incorrect.
On the other hand, most employers do seem to agree that vacation can help improve a person’s health and well-being, boost morale, prevent burn-out, and thus elevate job performance and overall life satisfaction. Simply put, vacation makes employees happier and healthier, and of all people, we as hospitality professionals probably know best what a big difference happiness can make.
So, how can we encourage people to enjoy the vacations they need and deserve, worry-free? Here is a great example: SteelHouse, a marketing and advertising company, not only allows their employees unlimited vacation, but also gives each employee $2,000 to spend on vacations per year. As a result, only six out of 250 employees left the company (only half for work-related reasons) in the past three years. This means that not only do they have happier and more productive employees, they also have extremely low turnover. SteelHouse is definitely not alone in offering this new “paid paid vacation” benefit; the number can go up to $7,500 per year in some companies. (I am writing my application letter now.)
Of course, not every company can afford to do that. But the key — and the very minimum — is to show support to your employees and alleviate their worry. Here is what employers can do to change their company culture and encourage employees to take vacations: modify the company vacation policy and positively communicate the policy to its employees. Reassure employees that they will not get in trouble just for taking their allotted vacations. Employees and managers should lead by example; if the bosses are not taking any time off, what would you expect from the employees?
You can also cross-train your employees so that when someone is out of the office, you do not have to bother them unless there is an emergency. If possible, you can also rearrange the workload during different times of the year. For instance, if your business is not particularly busy during the summer (which is arguably the most popular vacation season), then lighten the business calendar so that not everybody has to be there.
If you find it challenging to manage staffing in this way, try using an office tracker that is accessible to everyone. During my internship over the summer, we used an Excel spreadsheet shared on Google Docs to track where everyone is or will be, company events, etcetera. It really does not have to cost anything, and people can effectively arrange their time off, based on the happenings in the office.
I believe none of these suggestions is too demanding for most companies. Why not give it a try and see how it goes?
Sunny Wang is a graduate assistant at the HFTP Americas Research Center and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in hospitality management at the University of Houston, graduating in May 2018. Wang was the vice president of the HFTP Polytechnic University student chapter. She is also the first recipient of the John Cahill Hospitality Technology Research Assistantship established by HFTP at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston.