The value of vacation time
What businesses are learning about work-life balance
Story and photos by Eileen Persike
Editor, Northwoods Commerce
It’s no secret that taking a few days off work every now and then to relax and recharge is a good thing. It can bring balance to the work and life equation, relieve stress and can result in a host of other positive outcomes. Intellectually, there is very little argument to the benefits of vacation time. Though actually taking time away from work can be another matter completely, studies show a shift in company culture that may be advantageous to employees and employers.
“There is statistical research that shows that when employees take vacation, they come back more productive – 26 percent more productive – and happier,” said Ellen Mathein, a business management instructor at Nicolet College. Employees taking time away from the work place is becoming so important to businesses, Mathein added, that some East Coast and West Coast companies are initiating the concept of forced vacations.
“In certain industries and locations, companies are mandating that employees take vacation. They’re finding that when forced to do so, they come back and say, ‘thank you because I can look at things from a fresh perspective now.’”
In the middle part of the country, mandated vacations haven’t become popular, but finding balance should still be a priority, said Rhinelander-based certified health and wellness coach and registered dietician Paula Wagler. In her practice, Wagler works with clients to add value to a person’s life, setting goals including managing stress, adding physical activity and focusing on spiritual, mental and emotional health. Achieving those goals can often include spending time away from the office.
“It helps to re-energize your body and brain so that you’re more creative, and that’s a benefit that organizations can see, increased engagement with work and increased creativity and even getting along better with co-workers,” Wagler said.
Another hidden benefit of taking time off is that people get more sustained enjoyment from experiences rather than from buying things, Wagler said. The weeks or months of anticipation and planning for a trip or vacation can have positive effects on a worker that are similar to those felt after the actual vacation. “The experiences, taking a skiing trip or going to the Grand Canyon can have more lasting effects than buying the latest smartphone,” she noted.
According to research group Project: Time Off, 47 percent of Wisconsin workers in 2017 had unused vacation time, which added up to nearly 11.8 million days spent in the office instead of at the beach, on the couch or a ski slope. Nationwide, the same research showed Americans forfeited 212 million days; averaging out to $561 per worker given back to their employers. Why are workers relinquishing benefits? The reasons are varied, but often are due to fear, said licensed clinical social worker Heidi Pritzl, who works at Ascension Koller Behavioral Health in Eagle River and Woodruff.
“You don’t need to take an exotic vacation, but take a trip up north to some waterfalls, go skiing. Getting out and doing something in the community can even break up the day-to-day routine.” Heidi Pritzl
“They fear losing employment or a promotion, and some have kids and want to save some of those days for when their children are ill,” Pritzl said. “And some people certainly like the repetition of the routine.” But, Pritzl warned, they will see symptoms of decreased serotonin, the hormone that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness, such as feeling “less happy, having increased stress and they might even develop physical symptoms like muscle aches, increase in blood pressure, stomach aches.”
Mathein, who spent most of her career in human resources, pointed out that it can be difficult working for a manager who is a workaholic, which may be another reason employees forgo their paid time off. “If you’re modeling that (workaholic) behavior, sometimes employees look at you and say, ‘I’m afraid to take vacation because she never takes vacation.’”
Fear, guilt, workplace pressures are the main reasons cited by a 2017 survey by Glassdoor. However, Mathein said, a vacation culture change has managers realizing there is “an upside and a benefit to work-life balance, not only for employees, but for themselves as well.”
Starting a culture change
The Project: Time Off survey indicated that in 2018, 38 percent of employees said their company encouraged vacations, up five percentage points from 2017.The first step to creating a culture that supports its workers is to build a relationship, a connection with employees beginning when they first come on board, Mathein said.
“Setting forth vacation policies and break policies and creating a culture verbally and by action to show that we really feel that these things are good for you – take a ten minute break, take that week off or take two weeks off – we do it, we really believe in it, it’s cool,” said Mathein. “Just create that culture…that family environment.”
Managers are getting better at creating a positive work environment, Mathein added, as evidenced by work schedules becoming more flexible, thus allowing vacation time to be used in a less traditional way. Some people who drop off kids in the mornings may want to start the day later and stay later, and managers are making that happen.
“I think it’s really great to have managers to connect with their employees just to say, ‘how’s the job working out for you,’ ‘what would make it easier in terms of the tools and resources that you have here,’ and ‘is there anything we can do to help you balance your life,’” Mathein said. “That is kind of a big thing these days; unfortunately not a lot of companies do that but it’s a very good protocol to follow.”
Flexibility in scheduling is also seen when employees take days, rather than weeks, off.
“There is statistical research that shows that when employees take vacation, they come back more productive – 26 percent more productive – and happier.” Ellen Mathein
“People aren’t taking a whole week or two weeks off these days,” Pritzl said. “Half a work week off or an extended weekend, you don’t need to take an exotic vacation, but take a trip up north to some waterfalls, go skiing. Getting out and doing something in the community can even break up the day-to-day routine.”
Another challenge for some workers, whose jobs are always at their fingertips, is to unplug. “Checking work emails and still working from your phone is probably not the best vacation,” said Pritzl. “Disconnect or unplug your phone, or use it for family fun things like taking pictures” to get the most brain boost on days off.
Valued attributes like creativity and innovation can be rejuvenated with a workplace culture that prioritizes a work-life balance. Great leadership, according to Mathein, sets that tone which has a trickle-down effect.
“The people who are at the helm, whether it’s the small business owner or the senior management at a larger company,” continued Mathein. “They have to have this vision and this mission of creating a positive workplace culture. Then and only then will it spread and be pervasive.”