Recently, I was working with a senior leader to identify some things he could do to help his high-potential direct reports develop some specific leadership competencies. During our conversation, he made a comment that really stopped me in my tracks. Referring to his leadership team, he said, with a great deal of obvious satisfaction, “I’ve really got a great group. They’re all so loyal and committed to their jobs that not one of them has taken any vacation in the last two years.”
“No one has taken any vacation in two years?” I asked incredulously.
“Nope,” he repeated proudly.
“Have you asked them why not?”
“No,” he said, “why would I?”
And that, I think, is a question we all might ponder. Why should he ask? Are there really any pressing reasons? Especially since, in many cases, we really don’t want the answer because we’d much prefer to believe what this leader believes: people are choosing to forego time off because they’re so “committed” to the projects that we’ve given them.
That may, of course, be true, but I wonder. I wonder, for instance, whether people are committed, or rather terrified of losing their jobs? Committed, or worried that they won’t get promoted? Committed, or simply too anxious to risk taking vacation and appearing to be the only person on the staff who’s not committed? And it’s true that we’ll never know the truth about this particular pattern unless people are willing to speak candidly, which in most cases is unlikely. But we can wonder, what if . . . ?
And the conversation with the leader continued.
“Well,” I said, “there may be other reasons that could explain why they chose not to go. Have you encouraged them to use their vacation time?”
“No,” he said for the second time, “why would I?”
Another stop-you-in-your-tracks question. From this perspective, if the people working for us are adults, and we assume that they’re clearly responsible for their own choices about whether or when to take advantage of a job benefit, why would we need to encourage them to use it? Especially if having people take time off from doing their jobs certainly doesn’t benefit us, as their bosses?
This is where things get tricky, because this is where a boss has to shift from short-term to long-view thinking, and to some bosses, the risks may seem greater than the potential payoffs. The assumption that we’re asked to test here is whether the indirect costs of an employee’s time off the job—to relax, refresh, renew—will ultimately be more than compensated for through increased focus and productivity when that employee returns to work. It doesn’t matter what the research says, because under the pressure of the moment, with deadlines looming and customers calling, most of us would ignore or disregard those results anyway.
Shifting to a long view seems justifiable only if we’re able to imagine the dark side of overwork, sustained levels of stress, and diminishing resources: sickness, exhaustion, or burnout. When employees take vacation, their resilience and stamina are renewed. When employees take time off because of illness, everyone loses, especially customers. So there’s a business case to be made for the value of vacations, but to believe it, a boss has to be able and willing to take the long view. Fortunately, at LifeLine we know that it’s a viewpoint with payoff.