US Companies Should Improve Their Vacation Policy

We aren't really good at taking vacation. We work more then other industralized nations, and are now at at a 40 year low in terms of how much vacation we take. It's pretty clear that are worse off because of this, and that we need to take more time off. Here is how companies can lead the way to improve this situation:

1. Eliminate Open Vacation Policy

Open vacation policies don’t work. Without a clear guideline of how much vacation is acceptable to take, some people (such as myself) take way less vacation, while others take way more. This leads people like me to not get enough time to recharge, while it creates tension in the office for those who take too much vacation. I think having a very clear vacation policy that leaves zero ambiguity over what amount of vacation is acceptable is the way to go.

2. Force Employees To Actually Use Their Vacation

Having a well defined vacation policy alone isn’t enough though. When I was doing consulting for the big banks on Wall Street, the amount of work I had was just so much that I ended up not being able to actually take all of vacation time they gave me. I felt that I needed to prove how hard of a worker I was, and sacrificing the vacation time that they gave me was the way to do it. It’s these kind of feelings of inadequacy that explain why people only actually take half the vacation time they are given[1].

Just recently Travis CI introduced a new policy that will force their employees actually use all of their vacation. Having mandatory vacation days as transforms the socially acceptable norm (the amount of days you get per your employment terms) into an actual obligation, thus ensuring people actually take their allotted vacation.

3. Ban Working On Vacation

The last remaining piece of ambiguity crops up in terms of working while on vacation, which is something that 61% of people reportedly do[1]. When I’m not working I frequently feel the need to stay up on email and slack, and in general be in touch. In the past I’ve even done a bit of work while on vacation if the people still in the office need my help on something. While there are certainly situations and companies where it is necessary for employees to be available, and even occasionally work while they are on vacation - I’d say that is the exception rather than the rule. If you are on vacation, you should be on vacation, and not be expected to answer emails or even be contacted. People need time away, which is the whole point of vacation. By banning work during vacation, employees actually get to go away mentally, and not worry about work for a while.

4. Incentivize Employees To Take Real Vacations

By real vacation I mean both in terms of duration, and in terms of actually getting away on doing something completely different than your daily routine. FullContact famously pays their employees $7500 to take a long vacation once a year. Brad Feld takes an entire week off once a quarter. Both of these things sounds pretty awesome but not a lot of companies encourage this kind of behavior. I’d say that companies should highly encourage employees to take vacation blocks of at least week or two. This allows employees to really rest, and to do something fun and come back ready to go.

5. Increase The Amount Of Vacation Given To Employees

Unlike most of Europe, where companies must give at least 25 days of vacation per year, there is no mandatory minimum vacation policy for US companies[2]. I’ve written before about how companies should offer employees the option to work less in exchange for paying less salary, and the option to take unpaid sabbaticals. But perhaps another approach would to just give people more time off in the first place. There is definitely a case to be made that people are more productive when they are well rested, so for a lot of jobs it may not only not hurt productivity, it could even raise it. Plus, people would just be so much better off, which has to count for something more beyond just profits. I therefore think we should raise the social norm of vacation offered from the paltry 2-3 weeks per year offered now to a more sustainable 4-6 weeks per year.

1. Glassdoor survey
2. List of statutory minimum employment leave by country