how can I get employees to use vacation time?

A reader writes:

I have recently begun supervising a small team on a university administrative staff where employees are allowed to carry over a portion of their unused vacation time and can cash it out if they leave/are laid off from the job.  Many of the long-term employees on my staff simply never take time off (a problem throughout the university, apparently, as the CFO claims the institution carries a vacation liability in the tens of millions of dollars).

I can understand saving up some time in case you needed additional cash after a lay off or before starting a new job. I do this myself to some degree. What I can’t understand is carrying over 340 to 380 hours of time and literally going two or three years without a vacation (especially when there are well-established “slow” times where it is much easier on the office for people to be gone).  The people that do this normally say that they “can’t” or they have “too much to do” when I urge them to take a break. This is demonstrably false.

Normally, I would not care how other employees use (or not) their vacation time. However, as the end of each fiscal year approaches these employees usually have quite a bit of time that they must use or lose forever. As such, it leaves the rest of us in a bit of a bind while they all take their use-or-lose time off at the last minute. I am under quite a bit of pressure from senior management to not upset these long-term employees by denying their vacation requests.

I have never encountered this type of culture in any workplace. Anywhere. Normally, people cherish their vacation time.  Plus, I’d really like to work with folks that are not constantly burned out. Have you ever encountered this and what can I do?

Oh yes. In fact, for a long time, I was one of these people. Some points to consider:

1. Most of the time when people aren’t taking vacation, it’s not because they don’t want to but rather because their workload is such that they really can’t see a way to make it easily happen. This is where you come in. Sit down with each of these employees and say, “I want to make sure we find a way for you to get real time off this year, because that’s time you’ve earned and deserve to take. Let’s talk through what we can do to ensure that you’re able to take a real vacation some time this year.” If they insist it’s not possible, tell them you’re committed to making it possible — and then show it through your actions.

Some managers give lip service to the idea of the importance of time off but then create environments where it’s impossible for people to easily get away. I believe you that you’re not doing that, but sometimes you still need to proactively help people see how it’s going to work. In other words, it might not be enough to just tell people that you’d like to see them take time off; you need to actually help them make it happen. This means that you need to actively work to find ways to cover their work while they’re gone, be willing to push back deadlines or other obstacles that make it hard for them to ever get away, etc.

(Make sure you do this in a way that doesn’t imply that you think they’re on the brink of a breakdown if they don’t take a vacation. Coming across as looking out for their quality of life because you’re an awesome manager = good. Coming across as fearing an imminent meltdown = possibly insulting.)

2. Next, is it really a problem if lots of people take vacation time all at once at the end of the year? Is it possible to simply know this is going to happen and plan ahead for it, without it causing significant problems? Sometimes something is irritating because you think people should be doing it differently, but when you step back and look at the actual impact, it’s not really that bad.

3. But if all that end-of-year time-off does truly cause problems, is it severe enough that there’s a business need to require a certain level of staffing in the department and warn people well ahead of time (like now) that you’re committed to ensuring coverage during that period?

However, note that lots of people prefer to take their vacation time the last couple of weeks of the year because of the holidays, so you really, really want to be sure that you can’t reasonably accommodate them before you do this. Don’t take a hard line on this on principle; do it only if you truly need to.

Really though, I think point #1 is where your best results are likely to be. What ideas do others have?

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I am not trying to sound insulting, but from my perspective, it seems that if you were to “solve” this problem it would be a proverbial feather in your cap. As mentioned in the initial response – is this really an issue?

    As someone who has worked as a university staff member – those slow periods – usually during semester breaks were times to catch up on a mountain of paperwork. And when I did take a vacation, I came back to a lot of unanswered emails and voicemails that I had to follow-up with. Also, in this economy, lay-offs and freezes on wages is far from uncommon, so vacations may be more of a luxury than a necessity.

    1. Anonymous*

      In positions that have considerable control of company resources & decisions, key employees taking a vacation every year is a very important safeguard against fraud.
      My employer has a manadatory vacation policy and towards the end of the year any employees that have not used their entitlement are taken off the office schedule & forced to use their vacation days.

  2. fposte*

    I think I lose the max possible number of days to non-use every year. Which I’m pretty much okay with–that’s my choice. If I do go on vacation, the set-in-stone ongoing deadlines don’t change, so either I have to work while on vacation or work double-time for the period equal to vacation. To say nothing of remaining email and phone accessible during said vacation. In short, vacation has a considerable likelihood of being more stressful than getting my work done the regular way.

  3. Henning Makholm*

    It’s not clear to me whether the “end of each fiscal year” coincides with the calendar year. Assuming that the real problem is not simply that people prefer to take time off for Christmas, then perhaps it might be an idea to stagger the use-it-or-lose-it cutoff point through the year, so it happens at different times for different employees? Declare that John is now allowed to carry excess vacation time two months past the end of the fiscal year, Anne gets four months extra, Alex six months, as so forth. (Use a lottery to decide the order, to prevent the appearance of discrimination or favoritism). Future hires get slotted into the rotation where there’s room.

    It may not be possible to keep the cash-out-when-leaving option live after the official rules say it expires, but even a semi-unofficial option for non-leavers might do something to avoid the end-of-year rush.

  4. Nicky*

    I would look at other factors in your holiday booking system, if there is one. For example, I work in a team of 12. Generally, only two in the team are allowed to be on leave at the same time (although management try to be flexible). However, those with families are prone to booking 2 – 3 weeks off in one block during the summer months, meaning that people like myself, who prefer to take a week here and there, end up jamming in leave in between other people’s holidays, meetings and long term projects. It doesn’t help that the long blocks get booked at the beginning of the year, so that the ‘short blockers’ like myself find it really hard to find clear weeks to book, even with the requisite four weeks’ notice. As a result, I’ve carried over about week of holidays every year for the last five, not counting the amount of time-off-in-lieu that I accrue during an average year (once I managed to rack up two whole weeks).

    Also, maybe look at the people around the employees that just won’t take leave – are they perhaps worried about what will happen in their absence? I once had an external supplier (only slightly joking) beg me not to go on leave again, because a colleague was so difficult to work with.

  5. TexasGal*

    First of all, thank you for all of your advice! I’m re-entering the workforce after taking almost 2 years off after relocating from Virginia to Texas for my husband’s job.
    For some unknown reason I’m finding it a very daunting task to get my resume refreshed, prepare myself mentally for interviews and just generally getting the courage up to apply! I was very successful in Virginia and had a strong employment history which will provide good references now so that’s not the issue, but that’s not why I’m writing you…
    My question is this; if a large company has multiple positions that I’m interested in, and am qualified for, how should I go about applying for them? For example there are 4-5 jobs with very similar requirements and qualifications but all of those jobs have openings starting at Level I going through Level V. I don’t want to limit myself by just applying for the Level I jobs yet at the same time I don’t want to appear cocky and may not neccessarily be qualified for the Level V openings either. I have no way of knowing if the same HR manager will be hiring for all of the positions so I’m not feeling confident that I should send my resume in for all of the openings. The jobs are in different departments and even though I’m qualified equipped to fill any of them I don’t want to appear cocky or unfocused by applying for all of them if that’s the message I’ll be sending. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Anonymous*

      You’re not the OP to this vacation question, are you? You can email your question to AAM, but right now, this is someone else’s post who needs help right now.

  6. Andrea*

    I also work at a public university in Texas, and I’m with AAM on her advice #1. Talk to your employees, and maybe offer them something like they can take Fridays off (or rotate Fridays if you have several staff members who have lots of time to take off). If it were me, I’d love to have several 3 day weekends in a month, and it would reduce the general office stress related to having one or more employees taking a week or two off. Also, be clear with employees if there are times that they aren’t allowed to take off (your busiest times…graduation, beginning or end of semester, fiscal year end, reporting times, etc.)

  7. Karen*

    This isn’t really an answer about how to solve this ‘problem,’ but take it easy on the people that don’t use all their vacation time. Some of us simply can’t afford to take those days and pay for a nice vacation, and we see it as a waste to just take “staycations.”

    I will say, however, that these people should not take vacations at inopportune times if they can avoid it. You can rack up your hours, but waiting until busy season to take them is just inconsiderate toward your colleagues.

  8. Anon at Uni*

    Is it a university wide problem or a your department problem? It it’s university wide than you might see if the higher ups will move the rescindment date a few weeks before fiscal year end. I can see why it would be frustrating to have staff gone the week before budgets rollover but a few weeks before puts you in mid-June – after the start of summer classes but before the crunch of getting final budget info together for the July 1 new fiscal year.
    If it’s a your dept. only – then I’d follow AAM’s advice about creating a system where your staff feel more comfortable taking time off.

  9. Lori*

    I’m one who doesn’t need a solid week of vacation, so I did something at my last job that was fun. I took mornings off for three weeks in July so I could stay at home and watch the Tour de France on TV, or do errands, or whatever I needed to do at home (clean out the closets). It didn’t eat up all my time and I could still take a day (or half-day) here and there when I needed it. Maybe suggesting half-days periodically would help with people feeling like they couldn’t cope with a whole day or week away from work. It takes more keeping track but might help people use that time.

    1. Anonymous*

      A lot of people in our office do that. Or do what someone else suggested and take every Friday (or every other Friday) off in the summer, etc…

      I never seem to have a balance as I’m one that uses my vacation as I earn it – for appointments and mental health days.

      Although our company doesn’t offer sick time so we’re pretty much forced to use vacation time up throughout the year.

    2. Liz T*

      Ha, that reminds me of the time I spent a vacation day on the day after the final Harry Potter book came out, so I could stay up all night reading it.

  10. Brian*

    I worked in education for a long time before moving to industry and I’ve seen vacation hours get backed up in both. But there is a major difference in my opinion (though I suppose it could be unique to my experience). In education, they chose not to take it. In industry, it’s not possible to take it due to the ridiculous work load. Things were certainly hectic during the school year but the summers were the polar opposite. My job now is crazy 365 days a year.

    Having said that, I horded my vacation when I worked in education but mostly because I knew I was going to quit eventually and wanted the payday. I got two paychecks for a couple of months when I switched jobs and it eased the transition. I agree with other responses that it depends whether it’s the culture of the institution or just your department. You could face a lot of resentment if every department handles vacation like this.

    1. Justin*

      What kind of industry/workplace is set up so that no one can EVER take any time off, year round? I can’t imagine having a job like that. Why does this happen?

  11. Lexy*

    I wanted to reiterate the importance of taking vacations as a fraud control. If your department is audited its a big red flag if people dont take vacations.

    In more productive thoughts, can you have beginning of fiscal year meetings with people where you go through how much time they will have to use that year? And talk about when would be good times with the workload. Then you can follow up, maybe by email, quarterly or whatever.

    1. Anonymous*

      Can you explain that? I can’t see why a lot of vacation time, properly earned, would be a red flag.

      My educational institution gets audited by the the Feds regularly and we have never had a problem. Is a Federal audit “easier”?

      1. Anonn*

        If people are not prepared to leave the office and take time off the inference is to ask what they are hiding that they don’t want people to find whilst they are not there.

        There are many stories (possibly partly being urban legends) about large fraud schemes by employees only being discovered because they were sick or on holiday and the person covering the role discovered anomalies and notifying management who investigate.

        1. Chris M.*

          Yes, the red flag has to do with the fact that the best way to hide a fraud is not to go on vacation.

          During your absence, someone else would be taking care of your responsibilities, and therefore, bills that seem out of place, inventory numbers that don’t match, etc., are much more easily discovered.

          That’s why it’s standard practice to require rotation of duties (which is normally achieved by a person going on vacation) for internal control purposes, especially for employees who deal with money (directly or indirectly).

  12. Cassie*

    I work in a public university and I tend not to use vacation time. I’m not big on vacations (going places, etc) and I don’t want to sit home and “relax”. The school closed down for two weeks in December (although if it was “necessary” for you to work, e.g. research-wise, you could request an exception) – I went to work on the 2nd day of break because I was bored and it was freezing in my house. It was nice to work without distractions.

    Are vacation hours (namely use-or-lose) based on fiscal years? I assumed they (and other payroll-type stuff) were calendar-year-based, but I could be wrong.

    In our accounting/financial departments (including corporate acctg, accts payable, etc), employees are not allowed to take vacation in June or July because of fiscal closing. Could the OP implement a uniform policy like that? And employees who need to use up their vacation time before they lose them will just have to plan around that uniform policy. (Which means they may have to schedule vacations in the couple of months before fiscal year end but at least it would be better than right at year end).

    I’m assuming the “losing” vacation hours is a university policy? So I don’t think the OP would be able to stagger how many months into the new fiscal year the staff can “carry forward” their vacation hours.

    My sister works in a department (local government) where she needed to take a couple of vacation days to safeguard against fraud.

  13. Anonymous*

    I have a couple of staff that happens to every year. One of them is critical at the end of our fiscal year and after that one year she took off right then and got both of us aggravated, we now talk about this, and either she takes her vacation before or after the critical period or we plan and set things up so we can get through it ok (lean years are easier for this to happen).

    The other person is more critical at different times. I remind her about using her time throughout the year, but like some of the other commentators, she’s not going to travel, so she might take Fridays off or Thursdays and Fridays and have a few long weekends throughout.

    Something that has helped me also as a manager is that HR now sends me a copy of their leave balances so I can tell how much time someone has that will be over their cap. I feel I am not blindsided.

    1. JessB*

      Wow, that’s a great solution!

      I’ve worked in places that have peak and off-peak times, and it’s always been made clear to us. For instance, “the office will be shut down between Christmas and New Year. No-one is to come to work from the 24th of Decmeber to the 2nd of January. This time will be taken out of your vacation leave.” Each manager and the Finance Manager (who looked after leave – we were too small to have a HR rep) would make sure that each worker carried enough balance to get them through the shut down.

      I think just being honest with people, and working to a calendar helps. We have a leave calendar on our office share drive, where people can block out their time off when it’s approved, so everyone knows what’s going on. I also think it’s really important to be flexible and offer options, like the Anonymous above did.

  14. Anonn*

    It sounds like you do not run a use or lose system and that will be causing you problems. In the UK companies generally have a limit to how much you can carry over unless you have mitigating circumstances (such as boss/coworker severely injured or ill and you have to cancel your holiday because of it).

    This usually means that the firm pays or carries over no more than 3 days per employee and reduces the liability for the employers.

    Also if the end of your holiday year is a bad time to have employees off (say financial year end or higher than usual orders so more work) could you move the holiday year so that the time that employees rush to take this holiday is during your usual quiet period?

  15. Paul de Vrieze*

    The problem is kind of common in universities. Especially academics have a tendency to let things build up (I’m one of them). Probably the only option would be to set some policy (uni wide) to limit the total amount of days that can be built up. As a manager you don’t have to allow certain days to be taken (for reasonable reasons).

  16. Anonymous*

    How’s your university been doing in terms of layoffs, pay freezes, etc. ? Is it possible that people are afraid to take vacation because it might mark them for a future cut? My mom works at a university and is in that situation right now — nobody is doing anything to rock the boat or call attention to themselves or appear to be doing less work, etc., out of fear that they might be the next victim.

  17. Dawn*

    I agree with #1 in AAM’s reply. Very often, people are made to feel that if they go on vacation the whole place will grind to a halt, especially in a small operation. This usually happens to the person who has developed their reputation as the go-to person. This is me, several years ago. When I finally felt like I could go on vacation and have it covered, the first thing my manager would do when I got back is to tell me all the different things that went wrong and basically made me feel like I was abandoning the company for a week. My point is that people are told they need to take their vacation, it will recharge their batteries, etc., but then the manager creates an environment that makes it hard to take the time off. I think the most important thing to do is to make sure people are cross-trained. That way, people can go on vacation and have a backup to take over.

    1. Emily*

      Even if a manager or coworkers aren’t *trying* to manipulate me and make me feel guilty, returning to an inbox full of “for when you get back” e-mails, a stack of mail, etc. blocking my door, and a full week’s worth of work can instantly negate any positive benefits of a vacation.

      OP: What’s the common practice for out-of-office messages and the chain of communication while someone is away? For instance, setting up an out-of-office message before I leave never feels like a signal to wind down; it feels like I’m setting myself up for a landslide of work and stress by saying, “I’m out of the office for all of these days. I’ll respond when I return.” I think I would feel a lot more comfortable leaving if I could put, “I’m out of the office on these days. In my absence, please contact Jack regarding X and Jill regarding Y. I’ll respond to all other queries when I return.” I’d ask Jack and Jill to keep me CC’d on their correspondence pertaining to my role or to forward the resolution to me—that might put more messages in my inbox, but would save me from wondering/worrying about loose ends.

      1. Cassie*

        If I’m going on vacation (as in actually going somewhere), I usually ask a coworker to cover for me. We basically have the same job (just work for different bosses) and I know that he’s smart enough that if he’s asked to take care of something that he hasn’t done before, he’ll be able to figure it out. So I emailed the people I support and let them know to contact him if they needed something processed.

        There are other coworkers whom I’m less inclined to depend on because even though we all have very similar positions, they are the ones that are always asking me to help them with very simple tasks. I just can’t depend on them.

        If I’m taking a day or two off (e.g. I took 3 days off after I got my wisdom tooth pulled), and will be at home, I’d just work from home. There might be a situation where I can’t do something (like fax a document that’s sitting on my desk) but then I would just ask someone to fax it for me. But in situations like that, I don’t re-direct people to my coworker.

        And I’m actually not inclined to set up an out-of-office message on my email. First, Thunderbird isn’t able to handle such a message natively. Also, I do check my email when I can (even if I’m on a 3-week vacation) and for people who I haven’t proactively notified, they might not actually need a response from me. I did “fake” a few out-of-office emails (with a re-direct to my coworker), though – just so the people wouldn’t be waiting for me to take care of something. May not be the best solution for everyone, but I liked being able to re-direct the messages to the person that I felt could help (e.g. my boss’s schedule/calendar requests went to one person, most other things went to another, etc).

    2. CK*

      I agree with you re: cross-training. There is certainly a lack of it in my department – not sure if it is a corporate culture or a department-specific thing. It’s very hard to schedule any kind of time off when there are hard deadlines to meet and oftentimes I am the only person who can do a specific piece of a project. I have asked if I could have someone designated as my backup, but so far there is little to no support for this.

      1. Dawn*

        CK, if possible, take it upon yourself to identify someone who could potentially be your backup and start training this person. There’s probably someone who is looking to learn more, but hasn’t been given the opportunity or is too shy to ask. That way, when you ask to schedule your time off, you can say, “I’ve got it covered.” If you wait for someone else to designate a backup, you might be waiting for a long time.

        1. CK*

          That is very true, however what I forgot to mention is that being proactive and identifying a backup without informing the individual’s manager (or my manager) beforehand is an unspoken no-no…. the reason being, managers are extremely protective of their resources (ie. I get grilled anytime I help a co-worker out with some minor task simply because it’s not part of my “core” duties). It’s ridiculous, yes, but it just seems to be the way things work around here.

          1. Dawn*

            Hmmm…being proactive is an unspoken no-no? You get grilled for helping people? Wow, that stinks. Sounds like they don’t like for people to grow, or learn, or advance. Where I work (a small bank), almost all of us have our hands in almost every department. I am primarily deposit operations, but I have my hand in loan operations, accounting, branch operations, IT, and compliance. What you’re describing is reminiscent of a large bank.

  18. Anonymous*

    In our organization, there’s a level of personal accountability regarding vacation, if you don’t use it you lose it and can carry over only 5 days accumulated vacation frrom the previous year. It is the employee’s responsibility to ensure they take vacation and are able to self approve the time off , so long as they have a back up arranged to handle the extra incoming work.

  19. anon*

    First, decide how many people can be on vac. A common rule of thumb is 10%. For shiftworkers, up to 20% will work for a short time. Then, at the start of your year, hand out a calendar for the whole year. Give everybody the option of picking one or two choices by seniority, then all requests after that are first come first served. Make it clear that requests will be granted based on your rule of how many people can be gone. Also make it clear that this process is to avoid the use or lose problem, and you won’t be granting vacation requests based on this any longer.

    This allows the workers instead of mgmt to decide what times are peak times. This prevents the bullies from getting all of the choice times. This sidesteps the problem of the scheduler having to decide whose vacation request is more important-you can’t win this one. What one person thinks is a lame reason for a request, others think is totally reasonable.You could post a master schedule showing everyone’s planned vacations, so others could plan better.

    This system works best of all that I have worked with. The small problems with it are people will miss their request deadline, so you will have to extend it.

    Someone else suggested getting the printout of hours from HR. This is an excellent idea. We go one step further, and have the employee look at his vac accrual rate, and figure out how many hours of vac needs to be taken per pay period to avoid excess accumulation.

  20. Anonymous*

    Or maybe it is just that, in education, people really really love their jobs, more than they getting away from them.

  21. anon*

    People are smart. People will game any system. But if you change policy so that it rewards the behavior you want and penalizes the behavior you don’t like, then people will game the system to your benefit.

    Are people carrying 2 weeks of vacation to protect against layoffs? Do you want them to go on vacation? Are you confident that people won’t get laid off, but they won’t believe you? Pass a rule “if you’re laid off you may claim your vacation. If you’re laid off and don’t have at least 2 weeks of vacation, we’ll supplement you by that much.” Voila: you’ve created an incentive to use vacation, by rewarding “spenders” at the expense of “savers.”

    Are people getting burned out? Is it reflecting in their performance? Take it up at review time. “you’ve been acting burned out. But you haven’t submitted a single request or asked for any vacation. If you ask for time off and we say no, then being burned out won’t count against you. if you don’t ask for vacation and your job suffers as a result of your stubbornness, then your review will suffer. Please change that for next year.”

    Are they NOT burned out, and you wish they would simply use up those pesky vacation days? Offer to buy them back. You can set a price which is less than 100% return, so long as they don’t have to take it. You can even get fancy and try other incentives: “cash in a week’s vacation in January, and get full pay in return, with a sliding scale reduction so December cash-ins get 1/2 pay.”

    And so on.

  22. Rachel*

    I worked as an admin in higher ed and barely touched my vacation during my employment. The university gave us 21 vacation days (including the week off between Christmas and New Years) and half-days Fridays during the summer. I had more time off than money, and very manageable amount of work.

    I agree with AAM’s advice, and would also second discussing “creative” vacation options (half-day Fridays, etc).

  23. Kate*

    Quick note: when I was in business school, one thing we talked about was how to identify employees that might be embezzling or cooking the company books, and the number one red flag is someone who doesn’t take vacation time. (As in, if the employee took vacation time, someone would check his/her records and discover the crime.)

    Not to say your employees are committing any felonies or stealing, but I just wanted to mention it.

    1. Dawn*

      Good point! I am in banking and we require all employees with more than two weeks of vacation to take 10 consecutive days off (2 weeks). By doing this, someone who is embezzling is more likely to be caught. They may be able to cover their tracks for a week, but most likely not two weeks.

  24. clobbered*

    Don’t forget the other advantage of carrying a lot of vacation – in many US large employers it can be used for paid family leave. So there are good reasons to do this if, say, you are planning on having a baby.

    I want to zero in on AaM’s question of “is this a real problem”. Because if it isn’t, it’s actually great for everybody to take time off in sync in December. One of the reasons people don’t take vacations is that the stress of all the e-mail that has piled up while one is away is too much. When the whole department goes on holiday at once, there isn’t the drip feed of “Oh Jane I know you are away but when you come back could you dig these numbers for me” e-mails accumulating. There’s a reason the whole of France shuts down in August :-)

    If you really have reasons not to have everybody going at once, you just need a clear and fair policy. Typically use-it-or-lose it employers send notifications in September with a list if employees and the amount of use-it-or-lose it leave that they are predicted to have by December (if your HR does not do this, ask them). At that point, I would set out the expectations for the department, saying “I can only approve vacation for N people in December and we have N+2 people who will have to take-it-or-lose-it. Can I have volunteers for taking vacation earlier, otherwise we shall do this with X” where X is a fair scheme that you have reached after consultation.

    But again, be very convinced this is a real problem before starting to mess people around.

  25. Meredith*

    I like all the creative suggestions, but I doubt the OP has the power or the authority to change university policies regarding when vacation expires or severance packages.

    I also work at a small department in an university and the reason why some people don’t take vacation (or they don’t take all of their vacation) is because there is no one to cover for them when they are gone. Our work is project based so if you are off that project grinds to a halt. Rarely ever are there multiple people on the same project. Sometimes leaving your projects to sit there for 1-2 weeks works– sometimes not so much due to federal or internal deadlines.

    That being said, I do take some of my vacation, but I have to work double time when I come back to catch up on my projects. It’s unfortunate, but I value the time off to travel and rest.

    I also like the idea the some people suggested of taking one day off a week. Perhaps that can help those that feel they are too overwhelmed to take 1 week+ vacations.

  26. LK*

    Can I come work for you, OP? I have the opposite problem – my boss makes my life miserable if I take so much as a half-day off. (I’m an administrative assistant). And our vacation policy is opposite yours – if we don’t use our 10 days vacation time by the end of the fiscal year, we lose it. I don’t have any advice that hasn’t already been said, but kudos to you – it sounds like you’re a pretty fair and reasonable manager!

  27. Nick*

    I have no interest in taking leave just to sit at home and do nothing while all my friends are at work. I may as well be at work. As a result, I accumulate leave faster than I can use it. I have only been at my current employer just about 2 years and I am already carrying 17 days.

  28. JC*

    I also work in a University setting, and thus far, I have not seen this problem at all. Because the entire environment is built around “work-like balance” – it’s like an obsession here! It’s widely accepted that you don’t work more than your hours and that you use your sick days and vacation days whenever you need/want to. Typically my co-workers will take their vacation time during slow times (Christmas holiday and the summer months) but it’s not unusual to see them taking random weeks off to match up with their kids’ school breaks. There is also “flex time” which is you can go to the doctor’s for an appointment and make up that time missed from work at home at some point – no need to take sick days to do so. We also get “work from home days” if we are sick but not too sick to not work (nobody wants to catch what you have so they let you work from home) and if the weather is bad we can also work from home…honestly I find work from home days are much more productive for me! So it’s great working in an environment that understands its staff have actual lives outside the University.

    I like people’s suggestions about half-day Fridays and taking vacations during slow times, but also encouraging employees by letting them know it’s not “the end of the world” and that systems/people will be put in place to cover them if they’d like to take time off.

  29. Anonymous*

    Those people who never want to take a vacation – surely this is unhealthy. If you can’t because your job is THAT demanding, ok, that’s a whole other issue…but those posters who can take time off, but would rather be at work than enjoying a week off to go and visit a different town (or state…or country even!) or to just catch up with life, it’s pretty sad that your lives are defined by work, and you can’t stand to give yourself just one day off…each to their own, I just think it’s pretty sad.

    1. JessB*

      I agree! There are quite a few comments on this post that say things like ‘I can’t afford to to anything when I take time off”, or “I hate ‘stay-cations'”.

      To those people, I would like to respectfully suggest that you take some action. If you can’t afford to do anything, do free things! Go to the library, to the museum, to the zoo, to the park. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, a seniors home or a daycare centre. Stay at home and reorganise your bookshelves, or watch all of your dvds and donate the ones you don’t like to a charity – or sell them on ebay and use the cash to go to the movies! There are lots of things you can do for very little money – I don’t have a lot, but I keep myself busy.

      To those people who don’t like ‘stay-cations’ (which I’d never heard of before, but which I love!), why are you living there in the first place? Get organised and get out.

  30. OP Here*

    Thanks so much to everyone for the very broad perspective you’ve given me on this issue.

    For those that are unsure about whether this is a real problem or not, I can understand your reasoning, but that too is a matter of perspective. In no way do I wish to force anyone to take vacation time if they don’t want to (or really to force them to do anything else they don’t want to for that matter). It’s simply that I came from a work culture that strongly encouraged taking time off so that you can come back to the job refreshed, and most importantly, with some new perspective (there’s that word again) on work problems. And I think there is a fair amount of research out there to back this idea up.

    As I read my original letter again, I realize that one issue I did not explain clearly enough is that the main vacation-refusers are also the ones with the most obvious signs of burnout. Poor attitudes, constantly complaining about fatigue and workloads, excessive use of sick time, and the complete lack of a single creative idea that might help us solve some of these work problems. Again, I don’t want to force anyone to do anything, I was really hoping to put a big fat carrot out there for people (because apparently a few days off is not enough of a carrot for some folks). I think it is certainly worth trying before using the stick by bringing up these issues on their performance reviews.

    In defense of the staff, I have learned in my short time here that their previous director was a real dictator that demanded ridiculous work hours, was focused on fault-finding, and generally did nothing to benefit or reward her employees. As a result, I believe many of these employees simply put their heads down to survive and have never looked back up.

    @Meredith, you are absolutely correct that I have no power to change university policies. As such, I plan to follow AAM’s suggestion about working actively with employees (including close examination of work loads) to get them some time off. I think many of you are right in that these employees are conditioned to believe that they simply can’t take time off without disaster striking. Either way, I intend to move forward as positively as I can.

    And, not to end on a negative note, but to stay realistic about the situation, I am still struggling with whether this is really the right position for me. I took this job mostly because of the recession but am trying to make the best of it. Unfortunately, I know that an entrenched work culture is extremely difficult to change even in the best of circumstances. I am not sure that I am willing to invest enough time into this organization to even attempt this, but that is another work issue entirely…

  31. Anonymous*

    If these employees are the direct reports of the OP, then AAM’s suggestion #1 might work. However, since this is an academic setting, if these employees are tenure-track faculty, then any changes would need to come from the department chair to be effective.

  32. Liz T*

    When I worked at a post-grad performing arts school, we all had summer Fridays off. During those three months the school was just closed on Fridays. Everyone took vacations then because there was nothing going on, and because the three-day weekends meant stretching your vacation time longer. I was one of three people in my office (one of them being the Dean), and we just made sure to stagger our vacations so at least one person was around. That meant I got three weeks in Europe with my family, and two or three weeks being paid to sit around the empty office and read.

    So…can you give them Fridays off in the summer?

  33. anon*

    I used to work with a man that thought the company would collapse without him. In 20 years time, he called off 1 day due to illness and lost more weeks vacation time than he took. Enter a merger, new company and forced early retirement. He went begrudgingly into early retirement, but died within the year. All I can remember about him is that life was defined by work. I thought it was really sad that that’s all he had.

    1. Natalie*

      I have a co-worker I suspect is headed towards a similar end. The man has at least 6 months worth of banked vacation (our company instituted a limit recently, but in my state it can’t apply retroactively), and has only taken a few days off in the years I’ve worked here.

  34. tklow*

    I’m confused how people are even able to do that. I live in Alberta, Canada and the government prohibits this. There are many reasons: one reason is that if employees can bank weeks and weeks of vacation, a nefarious boss could pressure staff into never taking time off. By having laws that require employees to take vacations, you help ensure staff can get the rest they need and have earned. To avoid the same issue, the law says you can’t take vacation time in chunks of less than one day at a time. So your boss can’t say you get an hour off here and then and wittle away your vacation time. Bascially, if you get 3 weeks of vacation per year, you must use it by the end of the following year. If you earn vacation as you go, then you should never have more than 3 weeks banked, etc.

    Also, any accountant will tell you that employees should take vacations regularly, in chunks of 1-2 weeks at a time, as this is one of the best ways to lower your risk of fraud and also test your delegation strategy and position assessments (simple truth is, most fraud can be covered up quite easily, and is usually detected when staff resign or someone else has to cover their position). It’s considered a “best practice” for non-profits, and many other businesses. We have to have an annual audit and are always urged to make sure our staff are gone for a week or two each year. We benefit in other ways from this: we learn a lot about who can cover their jobs, what each person does, and what information we’d need to replace that person if needed. If they don’t take time off, you are wandering around in the dark about all of these things. What about disaster planning? How can you do that if you haven’t had to live without a certain person/position for a couple of weeks?

    In general, allowing people to work years without vacations is terrible business practice for the reasons above, and because it does not show a committment to employee health (which can come up if you have stress leave situations — a scary thought in the litigious US). I’m amazed to hear there are places where there are no laws re: this. As you mention, there is also a massive financial concern, which is hard on any business, but especially small ones. If I’d banked all my vacation the last 5 years I’d have about 7 months owing to me: my non-profit employer could not afford to pay me out for 7 months and replace me at the same time. I would not feel right about doing that to them (nor about working until I burn out and then doing a bad job).

    My two cents…

  35. Joe Josephson*

    I’ve been an employee and an employer. I took only one vacation when I was an employee. I was the star of the company the day I left for Hawaii. When I arrived back to work two weeks later, I was less than dirt. While I was gone, a co-worker had gone to great lengths to undermine my position and blame me for much that I had nothing to do with. The next month was a living hell for me as my employer treated me like crap. I had enough and walked out. That was my last day as an employee…. ever. About two weeks later my ex-employer called. I hung up the phone. That evening my supervisor and the CEO were at my front door apologizing! Apparently my treacherous co-worker’s house of cards collapsed and she was exposed for what she was. My bosses realized their mistake and were there to bribe me back. I had already cashed out and was negotiating a small business so I told my ex bosses that I wished them good luck and to fuck off and never darken my doorstep again. Best decision I ever made.

    But I digress. The reason many, if not most, employees avoid taking vacation time, is the fear their positions will be compromised while they are away. This is not an irrational fear because my situation is not as uncommon as you may think. There is always someone nipping at your heels and if you drop your guard for even a moment, it can be disastrous.

  36. Anonymous*

    How horrible. I have never heard of anything like this happening to anyone in my life. I guess I don’t know a lot about cut throat people.

  37. Rich Gulag*

    A Few Thoughts Before Vacation
    For the most part, employees should not be allowed to take vacation, often abuse the vacation policy and place the organization and themselves at risk while they are away from the office. Most employees consider themselves entitled to take vacations simply because the company provides a vacation allotment based on the number of years of service. Our corporate culture does not view vacation favorably and we are encouraged to dissuade employees from using their annual vacation accruals.
    In my firm, employees must discuss vacation scheduling with their immediate supervisor for approval and unused vacation time will not carry over from year to year, and is forfeited at the end of the year. With each vacation request, I used this as an opportunity to meet with the employee to question whether the employee feels that have “earned” the request vacation or are simply taking vacation because the company has suggested they have an accrued time off balance. In these conferences, it is my goal to turn a request for week of vacation into at most a long weekend. In most cases I am successful in offering to allow them to leave early on Friday and all of Monday off and they are happy with the result.
    Sadly, employees are very sensitive with regard to vacation time and their expectations must be leveled in this regard. Handy use of their annual performance metric plans is always useful as part of any vacation discussion. For the most part, employees are not meeting or exceeding the unrealistic goals we assign in their PMP’s and it is helpful to point out that they are not meeting their goals. Time away from the office will not help them attain these performance metrics and the tasks will not complete themselves while they are away. Always offer to provide other employees the opportunity to complete their tasks while their away with the implication that their role is replaceable. Let them draw their own conclusion that there may not be role for them upon their return.
    In our firm, presence equals productivity. If we see you every day, we then have a line of sight on what you are doing. A well managed employee is productive because he is on a schedule and is provided little time outside the office to fully engage in activities that will impair his ability to perform at work. Outside of the office, employees generally engage in terrible lifestyles characterized by poor diets, drug and alcohol abuse and risky recreational activities. Quite simply, employees don’t know what to do with vacation time and place themselves and the productivity of the organization at risk by being allowed to be away from the office for an extended period.
    Inherently, a man left unmanaged is risk to himself and the organization. “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.” For the good of the employee and the firm, manage all vacation time such that requesting time out of the office a painful process that questions the employee’s performance and rewards his peers who don’t take time away from the office. If an employee does take vacation, they should be scheduled to participate in “mandatory” conference calls, receive urgent client requests and contacted frequently to ensure they never lose touch with the office. Upon their return, they should be ignored, alienated and made to regret their vacation, such that they will not be inclined to request future time off.
    “Vacation time? People come and work at this firm for one reason: to become filthy rich. That’s it. We’re not here to make friends. We’re not savin’ the fuckin’ manatees here, guys. You want vacation time? Go teach third grade, public school.”
    -Jim Young, Boiler Room

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