Next to “The Great Resignation,” the headline I see most this summer is “Employee Burnout.” And with good reason—people are burned out. A recent Gallup poll shows that 61 percent of women and 52 percent of men feel stressed on any given day. We have all been through upheaval that is unprecedented in our lifetime. In fact, we are still in the midst of it.

It would be a wonder if people didn’t feel burned out.

The good news is that there are things that can help with stress and fatigue, one of which is no surprise: time off from work. The bad news is that we have never been very good at taking time off and we aren’t any better now that we need to do so even more! In the U.S., we don’t use our vacation time. In 2018, about half of us didn’t quite use it all, and a third of us only used about half. Collectively, that was 768 million days of unused time off for the year!

If we’re burned out, why aren’t we using our vacation time?

It’s true that people find it difficult to take time off, but it’s more complex than that.

One reason is certainly that people have had nowhere to go, but this tendency predates the pandemic shutdowns. Many people feel that it is more trouble to come back to a slew of unread emails than it is relaxing to take time off. They also worry about how it looks to colleagues and bosses. The pandemic has exacerbated these feelings. People in hard-hit industries worry about layoffs, while those in flourishing industries, but understaffed companies, worry about how it looks when there is so much work to be done.

So, what can business owners, managers, and others in leadership positions do to help? It isn’t enough to just give people paid time off. We need to encourage, facilitate, and be proactive in helping people use all their time. We need to model the behavior ourselves. We need to help address the issues and make it easier to be away. We need to normalize taking time off.

How? As usual, there isn’t one answer that works for everyone. It depends on what your employees’ pain points are, the size and type of the business, and more, but here are some ideas that people are discussing—and that many companies are implementing:

  1. Closing the whole company: Since “work FOMO” makes taking time off more stressful than relaxing, many companies have responded by closing down entirely and giving everyone the same week off. That’s not practical for every business, but some have found they can shut down on a smaller but still effective basis—every Friday for the summer, extending long holiday weekends, or on a team or department basis.
  2. Formally encourage taking vacation time: Do you know how much, or little, of their paid time off your employees have used? Most companies track this in some fashion, but it’s how you use the data that can help. Managers should notice when it’s been too long since an employee took time off and find out why. If someone is saving three weeks for their family reunion or to hike the Alps, great. If it’s because they feel “too busy to get away,” have a conversation. Make taking time off and caring for yourself part of any annual performance discussion. Setting the expectation that you want them to take time off can make a difference.
  3. Plan how to get things done when people are out: Managers should help their direct reports to ensure coverage or reassignment of deliverables when they will be away. Redundancy and backup plans are sensible for many reasons, and this is one of them. Set the expectation that part of everyone’s job is to back up their coworkers. Develop a framework or guidelines for arranging for vacation coverage. Don’t leave it up to the individual. This may sound like micromanaging every day off, but it’s really about supporting longer periods away (meaning a week or more).
  4. Model the behavior: If you’re not taking time off, what kind of message is that sending to your employees? If you send emails while you’re on vacation, what does that say? I understand that sometimes there is no back up to the CEO, but still, we can probably all do better at this. “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t help, especially if you are in management. If you want your employees to care about their health and wellness, you need to do the same. And you deserve it, too!

As always, I am a work in progress. I try not to work on vacation, but I can improve in that area! I’m so proud of how our team pulled together last year to keep our business not just running, but profitable, and we offered a bonus day off as one indication of appreciation. We don’t bank vacation time at ATR; instead, we have an unlimited PTO policy that lets you take what you need with appropriate notice and approval. This means it’s a little trickier to figure out if my team is truly taking enough time for themselves. There’s room for improvement there.

The point is that, despite our best intentions, people are stressed and fatigued, and for a variety of reasons, they are not doing everything that is offered to them to help alleviate that. We’re hearing about it anecdotally, and we are seeing it in surveys and statistics. I want to be a part of the solution. I think most business owners do. I’m sharing some of the ideas I’ve heard about, and I’d love to hear from you!

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