Sunday, March 25, 2007

You’ve Earned a Vacation. But Dare You Take It?

AS winter draws to its slushy close and the piles of snow outside your window turn dirty gray, sunny getaways start to seem almost unbearably tempting. Your daydreams fill with visions of islands rimmed by long, sandy beaches, or that adventure trip to Costa Rica, or the Disneyland trip you promised the kids.

But then your manager, whose last vacation was 10 months ago, walks by. A minute later, you glance at that project on the corner of your desk and remember that it absolutely has to be finished yesterday. So you take a deep breath, decide to settle for a long weekend this spring and promise yourself that you will take a nice break in the summer. Really.

Personally, substituting three days of downtime for a week or two of sand between my toes would leave me sad or infuriated, or both. But if you are choosing that alternative, you have plenty of company. Every year, American workers fail to use about a third of their allotted vacation time, according to recent data.

And, increasingly, they tend to use what time they do take in short spurts of a week or less, according to a report in 2006 by the Society for Human Resource Management and

A worker may leave vacation time on the table for many reasons, but they generally boil down to a few: business pressures, particularly on senior executives; a reluctance to appear nonessential; a desire to be paid for unused vacation days down the road; and often, the feeling that one’s workplace is anti-vacation.

In the society’s survey, 83 percent of human-resources managers said employees were encouraged to use their vacation time — but only 63 percent of the responding employees agreed that they were.

“People say, ‘It’s my workload,’ but when you dig deeper, you find the culture of the organization doesn’t support people taking a lot of time off,” said Carol Sladek, the principal in charge of work-life consulting at Hewitt Associates.

It may not even be the culture of a single organization. When H. Lee Scott, the chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores, announced plans to take the entire month of May off last year, the public responded with surprise and disbelief, and there was speculation that he might actually be moving on or be replaced.

(For the record, he went ahead and took his vacation, returning in time for the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June.)

Even when employees get away for shorter breaks, they often spend time with their BlackBerrys or laptops, some of which are thoughtfully provided by their employers. A third of the employees responding to the society’s survey said they usually took work along with them on vacation and, on average, spent 9 percent of their theoretical downtime working or checking in.

On the face of it, unused vacation time may not be a bad thing for employers. After all, people who work when they are supposed to be away are essentially providing free labor.

But problems tend to crop up when employees fail to use the time coming to them.

Some employees burn out as they continue slogging through long workdays — hardly a desirable result for them or their managers. Worse, employees who identified themselves as overworked in a study by the Families and Work Institute in 2005 also said that they were more likely to make mistakes, feel very angry at their employer and resent co-workers.

Some employees leave vacation time unused but risk raising their employer’s suspicion or ire by calling in sick at the last minute and tapping a sick-day bank. An unscheduled absence is almost invariably harder on managers and co-workers than a day off that comes with advance warning.

In the Families and Work Institute study, employees said it took them an average of three days on vacation to relax.

“Our data lead us to conclude that employers need to rethink the way employees work today,” the institute said in its 2005 report, “Overwork in America.” “A useful analogy is competitive sports,” the report said, “where it is well known that periods of recovery need to be interspersed within periods of ‘pushing hard.’ ” In other words, smart managers need to find ways to shoo employees out of the office.

Many companies have either reduced or eliminated the vacation days that can be carried over from year to year, discouraging vacation hoarding. Some allow employees to buy additional vacation days.

A growing number of companies are turning to paid-time-off accounts that encompass both vacation and sick days. When employees can use the time for any reason, they are more likely to plan ahead, alleviating difficulties with last-minute absences. Ms. Sladek of Hewitt estimates that a quarter of all large employers now offer these accounts, up from roughly 6 percent 10 years ago.

WACHOVIA, the bank based in Charlotte, N.C., limits vacation carryovers and offers paid-time-off accounts, and its unused vacation time is about average for financial services companies, said Sharon Matthews, the bank’s director of work-life policy.

But that still means Wachovia employees are forgoing a fair amount of free time: Ms. Matthews estimated that for the bank’s employees who are allowed to keep unused vacation time, the average carryover is about seven days.

Wachovia has just made it easier to take vacations: as of Jan. 1, new hires, who were previously not allowed to take time off in their first 90 days, can now do so.

“It allows us to recognize that life happens,” Ms. Matthews said. And not just in the office.

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