Americans famously leave lots of vacation days on the table. But in the wake of a global pandemic that halted travel and left many workers burned out, employers expect this year to be different.
Workers plan to take more time off this year than they did in 2020, companies and workplace experts say. That will put pressure on businesses that still need to meet their customers' needs while ensuring that staff members can catch their breath after a stressful year.
"We still want to meet the needs of those individuals we service but also balance the need for a burnt-out employee who didn’t take a vacation at all last year,'' says Julie Schweber, senior HR knowledge adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management. "It’s tough for managers to deny or not approve a vacation request.’'
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Thirty-three percent of workers plan to take three or more weeks off this year, compared with the 15% who planned to do so before the pandemic in 2019, according to a survey by staffing firm Robert Half.
Americans leave vacation on the table
That increase represents a shift. In 2018, 768 million vacation days went unused, a record at the time, according to a study by the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics and market research firm Ipsos, citing the most recent data available.
The reasons American workers don't take a break include fear of returning to a mountain of tasks that build while they're away and concern they'll be perceived as less dedicated to the job, workplace experts say.
But this year, companies will need to roll out or create policies to handle what many expect to be a flood of requests from workers eager to take every bit of their paid time off.
"Workloads have grown, and paired with the added challenges of trying to navigate a pandemic, it’s incredibly important that there’s time to recharge and reset,'' says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. "If there wasn’t a vacation policy before, many organizations have put them in place."
Professional services firm EY is one of several companies that expect more of its employees will take a vacation this year than in 2020.
"We do expect our people to take more time off this year than last year considering that summer travel last year was limited,'' says Kelly Grier, EY U.S. Chair and Managing Partner.
EY asks staffers to request vacation time as early as possible so steps can be taken to make sure teams continue functioning while employees are away.
First come, first served?
While more vacation requests may pop up in bosses' inboxes this year, Schweber says businesses always have to decide how many workers can take time off, and how they will manage when those employees are away.
Some weeks may be off-limits. Retailers and package delivery companies may have black-out periods during the holidays when no one can take off because it's their busiest season.
Whatever the rules, workplace experts say companies need to be transparent.
"If there's a group of folks who want to take the same week off, figure out how an employer is going to handle that ahead of time,'' Schweber says. "Will we make it first come first serve? Are we going to base it on tenure in the company?"
This year, some companies are also planning to enlist contractors to manage the workload if a number of employees are off at the same time, McDonald says.
Employees plan to check out
Another change occurring as offices reopen: More workers are saying they won't check in when they head out on vacation.
A LinkedIn poll found that 56% of professionals who intend to take a break this summer say they won't be in touch with work while they're away.
Roughly 1 in 4 said they will check in at least once a day, but that's down from the nearly 50% of vacationers who said last summer that they'd do the same, and the 59% who said that they'd check in daily in 2019.
When Scott Cypress recently took a three-week vacation, it was the first time in more than 15 years that he didn't check in with work while he was away.
The pressures of the pandemic weren’t the specific reasons he wanted to take an uninterrupted break, he says, but the health crisis did make an already intense job even more stressful. He and his colleagues were unable to meet in person for more than a year.
“I told my wife, I’m going to leave my laptop at home,’’ said Cypress, 58, an IT program manager who lives in Folsom, California. He kept a promise to not discuss work while he was away and relaxed so much, he even forgot his login password. \
“I had the best time of my life on vacation," Cypress said.
Cypress said his company has always encouraged its employees to use their vacation days, but he he typically would check his email while away. This year he was determined to do things differently.
"As I get older in years ... I understand my value,'' he says. "When I'm off, I really need to be off (or) I can't recharge ... I have to set some boundaries.''
For those who still feel tempted to check email while off, several companies including LinkedIn, EY, Bumble and the travel booking site Getaway gave their staff the same thing: extra days off this year so they could fully disconnect.
"Vacation isn’t always relaxing when your inbox continues to be flooded with messages,'' says Nina McQueen, vice president for global talent for LinkedIn.
The company typically gives all its U.S. employees a week off in July, but this year it gave its worldwide staff an additional week off in April.
"Everyone was off at the same time, so when we returned to the office, employees were not inundated by emails, meeting notes or project requests that would have piled up in their absence," she said.
Social media company Bumble also shut down its offices for a week in June to allow its more than 750 employees to fully check out, said Tariq Shaukat, the company's president.
The impact the companywide break had on staff reinforced how important it is that employees take the time off that they need, he said.
This year, "we're expecting people to take their full time off,'' Shaukat said. "I think productivity is improved when that happens and ... certainly we’re seeing just with this (extra) week off people have come back recharged.''
While Bumble is asking staffers to give their managers ample notice of what vacation days they want to take, Shaukat said, "we think the benefit is worth any of the scheduling issues that we might deal with.''
Taking off is still hard to do
Still, a separate LinkedIn poll found many workers say that taking time off will be difficult.
Among those who responded, 39% said they couldn't go on vacation because their workplaces didn't have enough staff. Another 23% said they had overlapping commitments, and 21% said they remained anxious about the COVID-19 health crisis.
Generally, an employer can decide whether it will allow employees to carry unused paid time off into the next year or lose the days they don't use.
California is among a handful of states that prohibit companies from stripping staffers of unused vacation time, though they can cap how much vacation time an employee can accrue, Schweber says. She recommends workplaces make sure their rules comply with state regulations.
Here are some other tips for employees and employers when it comes to handling vacation requests.
►Ask Early: Employees should put in their vacation requests as soon as possible.
►Make policies clear: Whether there are busy periods where no one can take a vacation or a cap on how many people can be off at one time, businesses should make sure the rules are spelled out and their employees are aware.
"Create and communicate those policies often,'' McDonald says. "Use every touchpoint with your teams as an opportunity to remind them that they should be taking their time and preparing for their coverage before their vacations.''
►If the answer's no, say why: If an employer turns down a staff member's request, they should make it clear why, whether that's sharing the company calendar that shows the other requests that came in first, or simply stating that half the team being off at once will hurt the bottom line.
"If you can’t approve it,'' Schweber said, "explain it.''
►Consider scheduling software: While most big companies have HR systems that track vacation time, smaller businesses may handle scheduling manually, Schweber says.
But if they're facing a flurry of vacation requests, "this may be a good reason to explore software options,'' she said.
►Let employees talk it out: Consider encouraging employees to talk about vacation plans with each other.
If several people want the same week off, "they may be able to work out the schedules themselves,'' Schweber said. "Sometimes, a department can work together, even if it's putting a calendar or poster board up in the team meeting room.''
►Prepare those in the office for extra work: Employers should alert staffers that they may have to take on a bit more work as the business tries to accommodate as many vacation requests as possible.
But also let them know that they'll receive the same back up when it's their turn to be out of the office.
"It can make employees feel like, 'OK, I may be doing extra here, but they’ll do the same for me,''' Schweber says.
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Employee vacation: Businesses prep as more workers plan to take PTO