Posted by Heidi Schwartz
Billionaire Richard Branson has made headlines recently with his “no policy” vacation policy announcement. Inspired by his daughter, who read about a similar policy at Netflix, the visionary Virgin Group head honcho has issued an unconventional edict that, according to his blog post, “permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want.* There is no need to ask for prior approval and neither the employees themselves nor their managers are asked or expected to keep track of their days away from the office. It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business—or, for that matter, their careers!”
This philosophy of encouraging a work/life balance runs counter to the typical American policy—and even the employee mindset—which Branson considers unacceptable. In a September 25, 2014 article by Rich Preston for NPR, Branson says, “The amount of holidays people are given in the States is dreadful. How can you find time to get to know your children if you’re working with the very little holiday time you’re given?”
Still, the fear of being replaced and work piling up coupled with a lack of employer support and communication is keeping Americans from using the time off they have earned, according to the new study, “Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Paid Time Off?” conducted by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications (GfK) for the U.S. Travel Association’s Travel Effect initiative. Despite a universal acceptance of the importance of paid time off (PTO), 40% of American workers will leave vacation days on the table, sacrificing their health and well being and adopting a “work martyr complex” to demonstrate their value.
The “Work Martyr Complex”
“Americans suffer from a work martyr complex. In part, it’s because ‘busyness’ is something we wear as a badge of honor. But it’s also because we’re emerging from a tough economy and many feel less secure in their jobs,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Unfortunately, workers do not seem to realize that forfeiting their vacation time comes at the expense of their overall health, well-being, and relationships.”
Americans construct many of their own biggest barriers to using time off. Workers cite returning to a mountain of work (40%) and the feeling that nobody else can do their work (35%) as the top reasons they leave PTO unused. The effects of a tough economy still linger, with one-third (33%) of respondents saying they cannot afford to use their PTO, and a fifth (22%) of workers expressing concern that they do not want to be seen as replaceable.
Failure To Communicate
This “work martyr complex” is reinforced by company culture, chiefly poor communication around time off. Even though senior business leaders overwhelmingly recognize the importance of using time off (95%), two-thirds (67%) of American employees say their company says nothing, sends mixed messages about or discourages using their PTO. Further, one-third (33%) of senior business leaders state they never (19%) or rarely (14%) talk with employees about the benefits of taking time off.
The survey suggests that management may be unintentionally sending employees mixed messages when they take their time off. Nearly half (46%) keep responding to e-mails, while roughly 29% return calls from work during their PTO, sending the signal that it is not acceptable to be away from the job.
Additionally, senior business leaders are dramatically more likely to do work while taking time off. Just 37% of senior business leaders reported unplugging entirely from work, compared to 74% of employees.
“Use it or Lose it” Motivates Time Off
“While the survey revealed a number of barriers to taking time off, it may have also uncovered the silver bullet,” said Vice President of Research at GfK Chris Moessner. “‘Use it or Lose it’ policies are tremendously effective at getting employees to use the time off they have earned.”
According to the study, company policy may most strongly influence employees’ decisions to use time off. Five of six workers (84%) with a “Use it or Lose it” policy plan to use all their PTO in 2014, while less than half (48%) of workers who can roll over, bank, or be paid out for their unused PTO plan to use all of it. But only one quarter (26%) of workers report that their employers have a “Use it or Lose it” policy.
“Companies and employees need to recognize the value of getting away from the office. It’s time to start a conversation and reclaim the benefits we work so hard to earn,” concluded Dow.
Netflix and Virgin acknowledge the fluidity of the modern business acumen—one that is anything but nine-to-five. Consequently, corporate executives within those organizations feel it’s more important to “focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked.” Will that mentality be adopted in organizations where the work martyr complex thrives? Only time (or time off) will tell.
*Note: this policy currently applies only to Branson’s personal staff of 170, with plans to introduce it to all subsidiaries in the future.