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A reader writes:
I have recently begun supervising a small team on a university administrative staff where employees are allowed to carry over a portion of their unused vacation time and can cash it out if they leave/are laid off from the job. Many of the long-term employees on my staff simply never take time off (a problem throughout the university, apparently, as the CFO claims the institution carries a vacation liability in the tens of millions of dollars).
I can understand saving up some time in case you needed additional cash after a layoff or before starting a new job. I do this myself to some degree. What I can't understand is carrying over 340 to 380 hours of time and literally going two or three years without a vacation (especially when there are well-established "slow" times where it is much easier on the office for people to be gone). The people that do this normally say that they "can't" or they have "too much to do" when I urge them to take a break. This is demonstrably false.
Normally, I would not care how other employees use (or don't use) their vacation time. However, as the end of each fiscal year approaches, these employees usually have quite a bit of time that they must use or lose forever. As such, it leaves the rest of us in a bit of a bind while they all take their use-or-lose time off at the last minute. I am under quite a bit of pressure from senior management to not upset these long-term employees by denying their vacation requests.
I have never encountered this type of culture in any workplace. Normally, people cherish their vacation time. Plus, I'd really like to work with folks who are not constantly burned out. What can I do?
Well, most of the time when people aren't taking vacation, it's not because they don't want to but rather because their workload is such that they really can't see a way to make it easily happen. This is where you come in. Sit down with each of these employees--ideally early in your fiscal year--and say, "I want to make sure we find a way for you to get real time off this year, because that's time you've earned and deserve to take. Let's talk through what we can do to ensure that you're able to take a real vacation some time this year." If they insist it's not possible, tell them you're committed to making it possible--and then show it through your actions.
Some managers give lip service to the idea of the importance of time off but then create environments where it's impossible for people to easily get away. Even assuming that you're not guilty of that, sometimes you still need to proactively help people see how it's going to work. In other words, it might not be enough to just tell people that you'd like to see them take time off; you need to actually help them make it happen. This means that you need to actively work to find ways to cover their work while they're gone, be willing to push back deadlines or other obstacles that make it hard for them to ever get away, etc.
(Make sure you do this in a way that doesn't imply that you think they're on the brink of a breakdown if they don't take a vacation. Coming across as looking out for their quality of life because you're an awesome manager is good, but coming across as fearing an imminent meltdown is possibly insulting.)
Next, is it really a problem if lots of people take vacation time all at once at the end of the year? Is it possible to simply know this is going to happen and plan ahead for it, without it causing significant problems? Sometimes something is irritating because you think people should be doing it differently, but when you step back and look at the actual impact, it's not really that bad.
But if all that end-of-year time-off does truly cause problems, it's reasonable to explain that there's a business need for a certain level of staffing in the department and warn people well ahead of time that you're committed to ensuring coverage during that period.
However, note that lots of people prefer to take their vacation time the last couple of weeks of the year because of the holidays, so you really, really want to be sure that you can't reasonably accommodate them before you do this. Don't take a hard line on this on principle; do it only if you truly need to.
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