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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
07:00 AM
Mark Runyon, Principal Consultant, Improving
Mark Runyon, Principal Consultant, Improving

Stop ‘Vacation Shaming’ Your IT Staff

Burnout from lack of time off takes a toll on your employees, hampers their productivity and erodes your ability to retain strong IT team members. Nobody wins.

Image: pathdoc -
Image: pathdoc -

Dealing with burnout is a problem regardless of your industry, but IT seems to get hit especially hard. Developers operate under tight deadlines, racking up extra hours as projects near completion. It’s easy to get worn down in these fast-paced environments.

There are a host of factors that lead to burnout, but one of the most curious is employees who don’t use their vacation time. This isn’t an isolated group of weirdos and workaholics. A stunning 37% of workers don't use their PTO to the tune of 169 million vacation days lost amounting to $52.4 billion. Think about that for a second. People are voluntarily coming into work on days they are getting paid to stay home.

Some may see this as a boon for companies, but in fact the opposite holds true. It represents broken vacation policies and cultural problems hiding in plain sight. To fix this, we must look at the reasons why vacation isn’t being used to get a grip on possible solutions.

Time off isn’t time off when an avalanche of work awaits you

For many, vacation is stressful. That stress doesn’t come from the kids fighting in the car or spending $20 on a Daiquiri. Many companies lack the necessary support structure to allow employees to take time off. When an employee takes a week off, they find two weeks of work impatiently awaiting them when they return. Vacation isn’t truly time off. It’s some torturous, flex schedule no one signed up for.

As IT managers, we need to put the necessary structure in place, so workers can leave without living under a cloud of fear as to what they will return to. This means cross-training workers to adequately provide support when co-workers are away. 

Yes, vacation shaming is a thing

What good is PTO if your company discourages you from using it? Two-thirds of employees reported getting negative, confusing or zero communication regarding PTO policy. Some organizations see taking vacation as a weakness and look down on those who abandon the team. This toxic culture needs to stop. 

Often, this starts at the top. Are you taking your allotted time off, and if not, why aren’t you? Your employees are looking for you to lead by example, and if you are obsessively manning your desk day in and day out, they will naturally feel compelled to do the same. Look to build a culture in your department where taking PTO is expected. Implement a “use it or lose it policy” where associates can’t keep rolling vacation forward and never use it. Employers utilizing these policies found only 19% of workers forfeited vacation time.

It’s impossible to disconnect from our connected world

In the age of smartphones, it’s next to impossible to completely disconnect. Emails are dinging. Slack messages are swooshing in. It’s a cornucopia of distraction at your fingertips. Employees struggle to detach from the problems of work when they are ever present. Set expectations for your department when employees are away.

Have them set up their Out of Office email and disable office notifications on their phone. Let them know they shouldn’t be answering any correspondence regardless of how quick or urgent the message. Set the expectation that you will only call them if there is a true emergency, and all other alternatives have been exhausted. By setting these parameters, employees won’t feel like they must work while out on vacation, allowing them to truly disconnect and enjoy their time away.

When all else fails, force vacation

Were you aware that you can actually force your employees to use their PTO? Most states allow corporations to force use of vacation time with a few restrictions. While I wouldn’t recommend it, this approach can be used in innovative ways.

The company SimpliFlying took the bold approach of implementing recurring, mandatory vacation. This amounted to employees working seven weeks on, followed by one week off. They were serious about their associates disconnecting. If you were caught interacting with the office, you didn’t get paid for that day. This unconventional scheduling worked since it was rotational in nature and everyone participated. The entire culture was built around mandatory time off, thus they didn’t have the headaches of traditional PTO scheduling. The numbers show a thriving work environment. Creativity shot up 33%. Happiness rose 25%. Productivity was boosted by 13%. 

Employees need time off to adequately recharge. Ten vacation hours can increase employee performance by an average of 8%. Managers are critical to building a healthy culture around PTO. They must encourage its use and establish a support structure that allows their associates to get away. It’s also important for them to see you leading by example. The productivity and happiness of your team hangs in the balance.

Mark Runyon works as a principal consultant for Improving in Atlanta, Georgia. He specializes in the architecture and development of enterprise applications, leveraging cloud technologies. He is a frequent speaker and contributing writer for the Enterprisers Project.


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