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You might think so in theory. But in practice, it really depends on the culture of your company. (wester/flickr)

Go away! Get out of here!

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, more and more, employers are telling their workers to take their vacation time, only to find that many aren’t listening. Some companies, particularly young technology firms, have gone so far as to adopt an unlimited vacation policy, and still their employees don’t go.

Why is it that people crave work/life balance, yet even when presented with the possibility of more “life” time, they don’t bite?

One problem is that despite the words some leaders say or policies they put into place, their behavior says something quite different. These leaders may send emails in the middle of the night or in the middle of their own vacations. Maybe they don’t even take vacation time themselves, sending the unintended message that if you want to rise through the ranks, you should do the same. Or they may praise workaholics with admiring statements, like “that crazy so-and-so never takes time off, but boy does she produce!”

In my years as a senior executive and management consultant, I’ve seen this kind of cognitive dissonance across a broad range of industries. On the one hand, managers see many of their employees burning out under the constant pressure to do more with less and struggling to find enough time for family and recreational pursuits. On the other hand, these bosses also need to produce, so employees who come through and work long hours make their work lives much easier. It’s pretty hard not to express gratitude for that kind of commitment.

As hard as it may be, it is up to organizational leaders to set reasonable expectations for how much time people should devote to their work. But even that is not enough. As leaders, we have to create a culture that supports those expectations. As long as companies reward constant connection with promotions or praise, peoples’ reluctance to take vacations will never change regardless of company policy.

Why is it that people crave work/life balance, yet even when presented with the possibility of more “life” time, they don’t bite?

A growing body of research is showing that getting enough rest and taking vacation time is highly correlated with improved performance and productivity. A 2006 study conducted by Ernst and Young revealed that for every additional ten hours of vacation their employees took, their performance evaluations were 8 percent higher the following year.

Employers who offer unlimited time off clearly recognize that vacations are necessary to recharge and refuel both physically and spiritually. Americans should learn from European countries where people take their time off and savor it. Those cultures put a high premium on family and leisure time and there is no dishonor in taking advantage of it. In fact, that’s the expectation.

With some decent planning, companies ought to be able to mitigate any challenges presented by an anticipated absence so that profits and productivity don’t plummet. Once that’s done, leaders need to step up and model the desired behavior until everyone in the workplace believes taking time off is truly expected, not just tolerated.

If you work for one of those companies where people aren’t taking vacation time, consider initiating a discussion about this issue even if you’re not in an official leadership position. If your management truly wants people to take time off, they may well welcome your insights as to why that isn’t happening.

As long as companies reward constant connection with promotions or praise, peoples’ reluctance to take vacations will never change regardless of company policy.

As a colleague once said of employees showing up sick at work and putting their coworkers at risk, they are guilty of “presenteeism”, when being absent is clearly the wiser choice. These poor souls drag themselves to work feeling miserable, but somehow think that coming to the office regardless of how they feel is a sign of their devotion. Perhaps the language change my colleague suggested would help reinforce a new cultural norm.

Coincidentally, I am finishing this article on the plane ride out West to enjoy vacation with my family. When we land, I will hit the send button and then turn to my work of the coming week — being fully present for my husband and children as we hit the hiking trails and explore the beauty of nature together. Next week, I will return to the office refreshed and ready to tackle the piles with renewed vigor.

What will you do to ensure that you and your team recharge and re-engage?

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Tags: Innovation

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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