What One Company Learned from Forcing Employees to Use Their Vacation Time

Have you ever felt burned out at work after a vacation? I’m not talking about being exhausted from fighting with your family at Walt Disney World all week. I’m talking about how you knew, the whole time walking around Epcot, that a world of work was waiting for you upon your return.

Our vacation systems are completely broken. They don’t work.

The classic corporate vacation system goes something like this: You get a set number of vacation days a year (often only two to three weeks), you fill out some 1996-era form to apply for time off, you get your boss’s signature, and then you file it with a team assistant or log it in some terrible database. It’s an administrative headache. Then most people have to frantically cram extra work into the week(s) before they leave for vacation in order to actually extract themselves from the office. By the time we finally turn on our out-of-office messages, we’re beyond stressed, and we know that we’ll have an even bigger pile of work waiting for us when we return. What a nightmare.

For most of us, it’s hard to actually use vacation time to recharge. So it’s no wonder that absenteeism remains a massive problem for most companies, with payrolls dotted with sick leaves, disability leaves, and stress leaves. In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions says that absenteeism costs the country’s economy more than £100 billion per year. A white paper published by the Workforce Institute and produced by Circadian, a workforce solutions company, calls absenteeism a bottom-line killer that costs employers $3,600 per hourly employee and $2,650 per salaried employee per year. It doesn’t help that, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only country out of 21 wealthy countries that doesn’t require employers to offer paid vacation time. (Check out this world map on Wikipedia to see where your country stacks up.)

Would it help if we got more paid vacation? Not necessarily. According to a study from the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, just over 40% of Americans plan not to use all their paid time off anyway.

So what’s the progressive approach? Is it the Adobe, Netflix, or Twitter policies that say take as much vacation as you want, whenever you want it? Open-ended, unlimited vacation sounds great on paper, doesn’t it? Very progressive, right? No, that approach is broken too.

What happens in practice with unlimited vacation time? Warrior mentality. Peer pressure. Social signals that say you’re a slacker if you’re not in the office. Mathias Meyer, the CEO of German tech company Travis CI, wrote a blog post about his company abandoning its unlimited vacation policy: “When people are uncertain about how many days it’s okay to take off, you’ll see curious things happen. People will hesitate to take a vacation as they don’t want to seem like that person who’s taking the most vacation days. It’s a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well rested and happy team.”

Read more at Harvard Business Review.