Not Taking a Vacation is NOT Good

John Schierer Foresight, Guest Post, Human Resources, Professional Development Leave a Comment

If people in your organization (or you) aren’t taking time off for vacation, it could signal bigger problems than you realize.

As peak vacation season approaches, exactly who takes vacation—and who doesn’t—may tell you a lot about the health of your overall organization.

Let’s agree that such a fear is called timeoffaphobia. Symptoms may include:

  • Large accruals of unused vacation;
  • Stressed employees;
  • Managers who work more than relax even if on vacation; and
  • People joining conference calls and video conferences while on vacation.

Some of the symptoms are self-imposed, for sure, but good managers assess the prevalence of the symptoms and measure the costs of chronic timeoffaphobia.

Mirror, Mirror

OK Mr. or Ms. Manager, let’s look for symptoms in the most obvious place: the mirror. Do you take vacation regularly? When you do, are you truly present in your vacation? How often do you call in? Check email? Dial into meetings? Most importantly, if you do any of these things, why?

The most often cited answer for not taking vacation is lack of time, or the flip side of that—too much work. That immediately calls into question the staffing levels, but being understaffed is not a new phenomenon. Who among us has worked in an overstaffed area?

Customers, we hope, will want us 52 weeks a year. That is a good thing. But when we do not take vacation, at what point do we fail to serve the very customer we cite as the cause of our bout of timeoffaphobia?

If you cannot organize your time, your priorities and subordinates in such a way that you can take time off, what does that say about your skills? If you cannot let go for a couple of weeks a year, how does that speak to your ability to lead the most complex projects? What does that say about your ability to prepare and train your employees?

Once I knew a manager who was about to take his first vacation at a new job.  His reports were used to daily calls from their previous manager, checking on their progress. The new manager announced he left his resort phone number with an assistant, but the assistant had direction not to call except in case of a dire emergency. The employees were shocked and asked with no hint of hyperbole: “What if there is a fire?” He replied, “I’d call the Fire Department.”

Vacation as a Development Opportunity

Approached broadly, eliminating timeoffaphobia has many benefits, including development. In a department of six people with an average of three weeks of vacation, it means that there will be a maximum of 18 weeks where one person can be off. Likely it is less than that, as not everyone will take all three weeks (remember, timeoffaphobia is chronic and unlikely to be cured in our lifetime) and there are certainly times of the year (say, between Christmas and New Year) that multiple people may be off.

One brave manager actually wrote two goals into the reviews of every person in the department:

  1. Identify methods and resources to enable taking a minimum of two weeks’ vacation without performing work on vacation; and
  2. Take on duties that support this goal for all in the department.

When the manager sets vacation attainment as a goal, it sends powerful messages: I encourage you to take and enjoy vacation, and I want you to acquire skills that allow us the flexibility as a group to enable vacations.

Draining The Swamp: What Do You Find?

There is a particularly virulent strain of timeoffaphobia. It is a rare strain, but perhaps the most practical reason to find the cure for the disease.

Take the case of a particular staff member who flat-out refused to take vacation for years. When a mild heart attack finally forced him off work, it became apparent why: he was cooking the books, embezzling funds, and to take a vacation surely would have exposed his well-crafted but fragile scheme.

If you do have systemic cheating somewhere, timeoffaphobia can mask a much more dire prognosis. Ruling out timeoffaphobia may allow you to catch more critical infections and cure them earlier.

Diffusing Dependencies

We all know them: They are the person in the department with the deepest, most complex knowledge of an arcane business system. It might be the person in Information Technology who wrote proprietary code. It might be a person who understands the complexity of the Customer Service refund system. They are the people we struggle with when they are out.

Sometimes the dependency is benign: No one else even wants to know about that system. But others are more malignant: Employees have created an artificial value for themselves by excluding others from their domain. Holding the business hostage to their specialty may enable a host of bad behavior. They are “too important” to hold to any standard that is applied to the rest of the organization.

This is a very special strain of timeoffaphobia that may inflict the rest of the department more than the “expert” him or herself. In one example, “Mimi” ran the HRIS and its set of complex transaction codes. Mimi was born in Europe and always wanted to visit her relatives for a month of vacation. Her request for a long visit was repeatedly denied. One day a new manager received her request for four weeks off. The coworkers, aware of the request, lobbied against her vacation as a departmental doomsday scenario. The manager set the request as a challenge for Mimi, whom he asked to create documentation and training to enable the extended vacation.

The result? Better documentation of processes, a wider-trained department, the removal of the mystery about the HRIS system and a happy, rested and more engaged Mimi.

The Elephant In The Room & The Wizard of Oz

The one thing we are ignoring is maybe the most obvious. People do not take vacation out of fear; they fear if they can take vacation. They are expendable. All recognize that in some organizations, this is true. Those who take vacation are seen as weak and ripe for the next RIF list. This may be epidemic or localized to a particular Neanderthal manager. But if you are spreading that fear, can you eliminate it in your department? Can you bring light to this lie that vacation is untenable from a business standpoint?

Remember the scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where the fearful wizard is exposed by a little dog pulling back the curtain? If you can manage to get your department to function, utilize vacations and thrive, you can show that it can be done and begin to peel back that curtain (that was more illusion than fact) in your area.

Hoarders & Family Issues

Another group who suffer from timeoffaphobia, unfortunately, are those who are chronic hoarders and some with poor family lives. Some people with huge vacation balances may live paycheck to paycheck and see the vacation accrual as a personal hedge or severance supplement. If you look at their desks, are they stuffed with ketchup packets from the cafeteria? How does that play out in their job, and how can you gently encourage time off and the restorative value that comes with it?

Sadly, there are some people with bad personal situations. They prefer work to home, and the idea of time off is to spend time in a miserable personal situation. In those cases, vacation is the stress, not the relief.

Hoarders and those with personal issues do exist, but they are not the majority. Whatever the underlying cause, their inability and unwillingness to take vacation is hurting your area, creating an artificial dependence on their skills and increasing their own stress. Be aware that the stress of their inability to take vacation may come back to bite you in more extended absences later. You can subtly encourage vacation, or perhaps even mandate a certain amount of vacation in some cases. In no case should you reinforce the practice through supportive performance reviews in this dimension (e.g., “We can always count on Joe to be here!”), a trap that is certainly appealing.

Are There Subtle Hints That Vacation is Frowned Upon?

We crave dependability. We treasure when employees are present consistently. But it can invite timeoffaphobia in so many ways. In particular, what comments do you make about employees who are on vacation to the remaining staff? Do you joke about their job being superfluous? Do you bemoan the fact that they will pay for their time off with an overloaded desk when they return?

It may not be popular or intuitive, but if you encourage others to pick up the slack for their vacationing coworker and praise the vacationer for being so organized that they did not have to call in, it sends a strong message. If appropriate, you might want to devote five to 10 minutes of the next staff meeting for the person to share their vacation time pictures and activities. These approaches send powerful messages that you support the restorative value of vacations.

Recapping the Cures

So, how do we cure timeoffaphobia?

  • Examine our own habits. Do we take our vacation? Do we call in and check in constantly? Do we complain about how hard it is to take vacation?
  • Enable vacations. Make taking vacations and the associated tasks (documenting procedures and cross-training) part of your departmental goals.
  • Celebrate those who take vacations. Show people you as a manager recognize those who know how to successfully plan and take vacations without checking in.
  • Think of vacations as your checkup. Are we healthy enough in our skills and behaviors as an organization to sustain one or more people taking a week or more off? If not, what risks is the “dedication” hiding?


… and have a nice vacation.

John Schierer

John Schierer

John Schierer is a senior Human Resources Consultant with over 25 years’ experience with such companies as Thomas and Betts, Kyocera America, Cobham Sensor Systems, and Cubic. His HR teams create strong cultures of employee engagement resulting in record-setting financial performance.His teams were awarded the Workplace Excellence Award by the San Diego Society of Human Resources (SDSHRM) in 2008 and 2010 and the National Business Research Award in 2009 for wholesale gains in employee engagement results.
John Schierer

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