Walking the Talk on Time Off

thinkstockphotos-163664798Bad bosses discourage workers from taking time off. Good bosses encourage it. The best bosses also get out of the office and use their own vacation days.

That’s the takeaway from the latest report by Project Time Off, a feisty little offshoot of the U.S. Travel Association that likes to remind us of how bad Americans are at taking vacation.

As we’ve noted here before, Project Time Off has chronicled the startling decline of vacation usage in the U.S.  In 2015, the estimated average for an American worker was 16.2 days a year, down from a long-term average of 20.3 days from 1976 to 2000.

The group’s latest report — produced with analysis by Oxford Economics of government data and survey results from marketing firm GfK  —  looks at the evident hypocrisy of managers who pay only lip service to the idea of taking time off.

The good news is that 93 percent of managers surveyed say they believe employees benefit from vacations. Almost as many say they actively encourage workers to take time off. But only 41 percent used all their own time in the previous year.

Why that matters: Research makes a compelling case that how managers treat their own vacation time has a powerful effect on workers, says Ron Friedman, a psychologist, author and consultant who studies the subject.

Writing last year in the Harvard Business Review, Friedman summed it up like this: “When managers forgo vacation time, it not only places them squarely on the road to burnout, it also generates unspoken pressures for everyone on their team to do the same.”

And that not only deprives workers of a break that helps them perform, but also deprives the organization of “fresh perspectives and creative solutions” they bring back, he writes. “Simply put, you’re far more likely to have a breakthrough idea while lounging on a beach in St. Martin than you are while typing away in your office cubicle.”

There’s also a financial cost, in the form of accrued vacation time as a balance-sheet liability. The Project Time Off study looked at 10-K filings by public companies to conclude they collectively have $272 billion in vacation liabilities on their books.

Why are so many managers unwilling to use all their time? Of course some people really do have crushing loads of work that no one else can do. And sometimes — if you’re launching a company, say — it really does make sense to power through a tough year with few days off.

But those cases are rare. If Reed Hastings of Netflix, Jim Moffatt of Deloitte and Barack Obama of — well, you know — can take vacations, c’mon — what’s so special about the rest of us?

Here are some of the real reasons, I suspect, that some managers routinely skip vacation. And none of them, I’ll warn you, are flattering:

  • They’re inefficient and unproductive. They tend to run around in circles and waste everyone’s time. They don’t get much done. So they feel a need to catch up by skipping their vacation.
  • Obsessive tendencies. They spend every day pushing their folks to compete. They can’t take time off or their numbers will tank. So they don’t.
  • Free-floating anxiety. The world is changing. Who knows? Their job might disappear overnight, or a rising star might replace them. Or someone might notice they are dispensable.
  • They really don’t have anything else to do. It’s sad, but I’ve known managers who gave everything up for work. They really don’t have much of a family or a life outside the office. For them, vacation is no vacation.

None of those apply to you, right? So do yourself — and your people — a favor. Take that time.