The Upside of Downtime

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For today’s hardworking employees, finding time off can be serious business

As we hit the dog days of summer, if you haven’t yet taken a vacation, chances are you’re thinking about it. Time away from the office helps us recharge, reduce stress and improves our health. Americans need more vacation time, experts say. So how do we get there –and are our employers helping?

Not only is the U.S. the only highly developed nation that doesn’t require employers to offer paid vacation time, according to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, but on average U.S. workers get 14 vacation days per year, compared to 28 days in Italy and 20 days in Australia.

Sadly, 57 percent of Americans have actually ended their calendar year with unused vacation time, failing to take – on average – 11 of their allotted days off, according to a recent study conducted by Harris Interactive. Historically during economic downturns, employees are concerned about being gone from their positions, says Julie Godshall Brown, president and owner of Godshall Staffing. But that’s starting to change as the economy begins to improve and job openings are more plentiful; more people are beginning to take time off.

Culture Shift

The U.S. Travel Association has begun campaigning for Americans to take more vacations to improve personal health. Simon Hudson, director of USC’s SmartState Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism, has studied the way Americans view vacations.

“We are a culture where we think we are supposed to be responsive 24 hours a day,” said Hudson, “and that’s just not healthy.”

Hudson is currently conducting a study examining health and medical tourism trends. Yoga retreats, medical spas and active vacations are becoming more popular and are just one way of rejuvenating. According to Hudson, evidence shows that vacations are good for productivity and good for your brain.

“Vacations can be healthy,” he says.

Eddie Payne, Greenville branch manager for Robert Half International, agrees, saying it is especially important to unplug and never commit to doing work while on vacation.

“A work-life balance can help companies retain people and achieve a higher level of morale within the company,” he said. This makes us all “lead healthier and stronger lives.”

No More Playing Sick

Federal law does not mandate that companies offer any paid vacation days. But “in general, we see that most firms are offering two-three weeks of paid vacation on an accrual system,” says Payne. “Accrual systems work because 10 years ago folks would have to wait six months or more before they could take a day off. Now they are able to earn time off immediately and I think it helps manage that work life balance more effectively.”

Companies are also moving to paid-time-off buckets instead of separate sick, bereavement and vacation time. In fact, in private industry, more than 50 percent of companies offer paid-time-off banks, says Brown. This allows employees to use that time depending on their needs and not to have to pretend to be sick when needing a day off to recharge.

Lee Yarborough, president of Propel HR, says that she advises her clients to update their time off policies if they still have separate vacation and sick days to a PTO plan.

“We all need days off, and it just works better in today’s environment,” she says.

Room for Creative Policies

It’s not just large companies either that are offering paid time off. “We see some very small companies that are generous with their time-off policies. Then again, some don’t offer anything. It’s still very much across the board,” says Brown.

Fluor Corporation, with more than 2,000 employees based in Greenville, allows their employees flexible scheduling options such as working a “9/80” schedule where employees work nine nine-hour days, one eight-hour day, and get every other Friday off over a two-week period. On a selected basis with the approval of their supervisors, they also have the option of working from home full-time, which allows for additional flexibility for employees.

Other companies get a little creative in their time-off policies, with some offering employees their birthday off or the ability to purchase additional time off. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that nine percent of companies let employees cash out unused vacation time.

Yarborough has one client that is revamping company policy to allow employees to bank their vacation days for co-workers to use. This is useful for employees who are having a catastrophic event, and it can foster camaraderie. Yarborough stresses that there can be tax implications with this arrangement, so it needs to be set up carefully.

Challenges for Smaller Employers

Regardless of how you get time off, it’s important to have a plan in place so work doesn’t suffer while you are gone. Keep in mind that smaller companies have a harder time accommodating time-off requests, experts say.

Jac Oliver, co-owner of the Swamp Rabbit Café, says “vacations are definitely tough for us. We’ve been lucky in that most of the summer, it’s just been one employee at a time on vacation. The few times it’s been two employees out, we actually had to hire a new person to fill in the gaps, which results in more scheduling shuffling.”

Employees should make sure to request time off well in advance and receive approval from their supervisors so the company can continue to meet customer needs, advises Brown. Most companies have a tracking system and policy in place to address time off – make sure that you follow it.

Payne adds that it’s important to establish boundaries for contact while on vacation. “You have to be prepared to unplug,” he says. “Have a plan and be as prepared as you possibly can.”

Payne works with his staff so they know how to reach him while he is gone but also establishes an interim chain of command so decisions can be made and work can continue in his absence.

“If employees are texting me while on vacation, I tell them to stop,” says Payne. “It’s important to recharge. Burnout can hinder productivity. The longer you work, the poorer the quality or you begin to make simple mistakes. Being refreshed, you can start anew.”

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