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The Secret for Boosting Employee Performance? Vacation Time


It’s often said that the US has a working problem. On average, Americans work over 250 more hours per year than their European counterparts. Attitudes toward vacation may play a large part in the discrepancy.

In 2016, US workers took an average of just under 17 days of vacation a year—a number that has been on the decline since the 1980s. It’s a wholly unique, American phenomenon unmatched in other western countries. Our counterparts in France and Italy, for example, take as much as 30 days. So what gives?

Though psychological studies have long since disproven the perception that high performers take less time off, the myth pervades the workplace. In Namely’s HR Mythbusters 2017 report, we decided to put this notion to bed once and for all. Having access to records from over 125,000 employees nationwide, we looked for a correlation between time off and performance. The results were clear.

What We Found

Because Namely is an all-in-one HR, payroll, and benefits platform, our invaluable data spans the entire employee lifecycle—including time off and performance reviews.

Pulling employee vacation and performance data was simple thanks to the platform’s robust reporting engine. Digging into the data, we found that employees who were rated as high performers took an average of 19 vacation days per year. In comparison, individuals with lower marks took only 14.

What This Means for HR

Our results corroborate what psychological science has already confirmed: time off has a beneficial impact on performance. While the empirical evidence is mixed on whether long or short breaks yield the best results, no study in the last decade has suggested that time off hampers productivity or engagement in any way.

One of HR’s core responsibilities is to ensure that employees are engaged and productive. The issue isn’t about policy, it’s about messaging. Last year, nearly 700 million vacation days were left unused by American workers. Employees are taking less time off than what they’re entitled to, perhaps because they’re afraid of being labeled low-performers. Indeed, one survey found that 80 percent of employees would take more time off if they felt encouraged to do so by management.

One company, Trifacta, has gotten creative around encouraging employees to take vacation time. "We offer a discretionary PTO policy because we want people to truly take the PTO they need," explains Yvonne Caprini Sorenson, Trifacta’s Sr. Manager of HR. "We have a recognition program called Above + Beyond. Employees can nominate high-performing peers, and the winners receive $1,000 to spend toward travel. It's a great way to encourage vacation use and to make it clear that Trifacta supports work life balance."

Ready to get creative at your company? Use our findings to help make the case. Encourage both managers and employees to embrace the positive role vacation can play in performance. While being mindful of state and local rules, consider instituting a “use it or lose it” policy, where employees are required to use the vacation days they’re entitled to. An added benefit to these policies is that employees will be more inclined to spread their time off throughout the year, rather than stack it together at year-end.

Last but not least, don’t forget to lead by example. It’s no secret that HR needs to take a break, too. 

You know what they say about assuming, right? Read our HR Mythbusters 2017 report to gain surprising insights into retention, time off, and more.

Topics: Talent, Performance Management

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