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Taking a vacation from work may soon become mandatory

Ezra Bailey

Ezra Bailey | Stone | Getty Images

With burnout prevalent in the workplace, some employers are considering mandatory vacation, full office shutdowns and other ways to get workaholic employees to take a break.

Only a small number of employers today — 8.7% — require workers to take a minimum amount of vacation, and some of this is for legal or regulatory reasons, according to a 2024 report by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Even so, figuring out how to get employees to take time off is increasingly on employers’ minds, said Julie Stich, vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. 

And for good reason. A recent Harris Poll survey found that 78% of Americans do not use the maximum amount of paid time off allowed by their employer. The average worker took 15 paid days off last year, despite nearly half being allowed more than that by their employer, the poll found. 

Yet burnout rates are high. Forty-five percent of American employees claim to feel burnout at work, according to a 2023 survey by Eagle Hill Consulting. That’s even higher among 18 to 32 year-old workers (52%) and women (48%).

“There’s more discussion about mandatory time off than there was in the past. There are a lot of instances when companies are reporting employees are not taking time off,” Stich said. 

Yale University's Joanne Lipman explains why taking vacation time is good for your career

Here’s what companies and employees grappling with these issues need to think about.

Tracking vacation usage and employee mindset

An important first step is to understand the company’s baseline, said Wende Smith, head of people operations at BambooHR. This can help companies pinpoint a plan for moving forward. Is the problem only in a particular department or is it more broad-based?

“If you’re not tracking it, you won’t understand what your problem is, or if you have a problem,” Smith said. 

Before enacting broad policy changes, it’s important to address the underlying issues that might be preventing employees from taking time off to recharge.

This could include heavy workload, lack of adequate staffing and the need to coordinate time off with other staff members, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans’ survey.

If employers are really serious about getting employers to take time off, they need to talk to employees, find out their reasons they aren’t taking vacation, and address them, Smith said. Leaders also need to be a good role model for their direct reports in terms of vacation-taking, she said.

And, when employees do take vacation, respect their time off, Stich said. “Don’t constantly message them while they are on vacation.”

Mandatory paid leave pros and cons

Jobs such as pilots, air traffic controllers, trucking and certain finance roles may have mandatory time off by law or by industry best practice, Stich said. But other industries may have more flexibility when it comes to setting these policies. Mandatory policies can be beneficial because they force the issue of vacation, but there can be challenges as well, such as employee pushback and enforcement, said Jonathan Gove, senior executive advisor at Eagle Hill Consulting.

“There might be some people who see that vacation time as a bit of a savings account, especially if they get paid out at termination,” said Kate Derby, West region practice lead for the absence, disability management and life specialty practice at WTW.

Additionally, mandatory time-off policies can be complicated to administer. If an employer is going to put this into place, they have to define how many days must be taken off, Stich said. Is it one day off a month, one day per quarter, or five days off in a row? Use of blackout periods also must be weighed for a business to function properly — for instance, during tax season for accountants, or three weeks before school at a pediatric office when back-to-school checkup season requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

To avoid scheduling headaches, companies might insist employees tell their manager what week they plan to take off by a certain date, and if they don’t, the manager needs to work with the employee to determine the time off, Stich said.

Companies also have to be prepared to administer, in a way that’s fair, who gets to take the prime weeks because otherwise you could run into legal troubles or have difficulty with disgruntled and disengaged workers, said Mary Will, deputy general counsel and partner at Faegre Drinker. Employers have to be prepared to manage complaints that “Joe always gets to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s and no one else can and we don’t think that’s fair,” she said.

Federal, state and local law

There is no federal law that says employers need to provide paid time-off, but there are some state and local laws that apply. Different states also have different requirements on paying for unused paid-time off, which can be complicated to address with a mandatory vacation policy, said Jill Kahn Marshall, an employment and labor attorney and partner at Reavis Page Jump. Before implementing a new policy, businesses should check with an attorney to make sure they aren’t accidentally running afoul of any state and local laws, she said.

Methods to encourage more time off from work

Instead of focusing on mandatory time off, some companies are looking for less administratively burdensome and employee-friendly alternatives. Many high-tech companies in California, for example, have adopted shut-downs, which typically take place the week of July 4th or between Christmas and New Year’s, said WTW’s Derby. “Even the tech companies that have unlimited PTO are doing shut-downs. It’s the chance to catch-up and catch your breath because everybody is taking the same week off,” Derby said. 

More companies are also scrapping their unlimited time-off policies, which haven’t always worked out as anticipated. In some cases, employees have abused the policy, but often, they take way less vacation than they did when they had a set number of days. As a result, some employers have gone back or are considering returning to policies where employees only accrue a certain number of days — often two to three weeks per year, Will said.

Sander VanderWerf, senior vice president of Aon’s time away and life solutions practice, says some employers may want to consider a vacation plan that requires workers to use it or lose the days. “Employees are more likely to use more time when the time does not carry over at year-end,” she wrote in an email.

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