My company, CoachUp, used to have a policy of "unlimited vacation." The premise was that as long as you were crushing it at work, you could take off as much time as you needed to stay fresh and invigorated. We expected the policy would be beneficial for both employees and the company. After all, there were HR advantages to unlimited vacation days, too: We didn't need to track them, and there was no need to "pay out" for foregone vacation days if an employee left the company.

In theory, the new vacation program was great. But in reality, it didn't quite work out the way we planned. The net effect was that team members took less vacation overall, and many felt like the policy was limiting. And I was part of the problem: As the founder of the company, I hardly ever took vacation-so employees felt like they shouldn't take time off either.

As it turns out, we were not alone in this cycle. A 2009 study found that 66 percent of employees do not max out their allowed vacation days, and today, fewer Americans are taking vacation than at any point in the last four decades. It may seem like a beneficial thing for organizations-having employees at the office rather than relaxing at the beach-but it's actually a big problem for productivity. As I've come to learn, taking time off is extremely important: It helps you "reset", focus on big challenges, and come up with creative solutions that you otherwise might miss in the day-to-day grind. And, numerous leading medical studies back up this claim.

So, we changed our policy to allow four weeks of vacation for all employees, regardless of role or tenure in our organization. If you don't use it, you lose it-so you can't save up your days. We actually want our employees to take the time off, and we set a policy in place to ensure that they do.

After changing CoachUp's policy, I started thinking more about the importance of using time off to your advantage. Here are my 8 best practices for taking a vacation:

  1. Go away. If you can afford it, be sure to go somewhere during your vacation. The challenges of travel-changing environment, finding yourself in a new culture, meeting new people, seeing new things-is very helpful in allowing you to think creatively and see things in a new way. Bring this new, fresh perspective back to the office.
  2. Communicate with your manager and co-workers. Be sure to let your manager and teams know about your vacation well in advance. Doing this will help prepare for your absence, and even more importantly, will force you to think ahead about priorities on your plate and what needs to be done first. When you get back, be sure to communicate about your trip and how it was good for you to get away-it's important that your team understands that vacation is not a selfish act, but an important way to bring renewed energy and focus back to the office.
  3. Plan ahead. Generally, the farther ahead you plan for a trip, the more you financially benefit: saving on plane tickets and hotels, etc. which allows you to see and do more. It's also a great way to draw out the anticipation of your vacation, one of my favorite parts about planning ahead-reaping benefits of taking a break long before you actually take off.
  4. Check your email. While it's important to "unplug," you can still check your email while on vacation. Flag emails that you need to return when you get back to the office. If you can answer them quickly, do it there and then. Although vacation is important, your job is your livelihood-and in my case, it's my passion. It's not for everyone, but my team is my tribe and I feel responsibility to check in with them at least once per day.
  5. Exercise every day. When on vacation, build an hour per day for physical exercise. Go for a run, take a yoga class, hit the gym (or even start working with a trainer.) Whatever it is, be sure to have fun and get active. Exercising will help you bring energy back to the office and will give you the satisfied feeling that your vacation was both relaxing, and productive.
  6. Read at least one book. Whether you plan to spend time at a beach, on a lake, or at an internet cafe, be sure to bring at least one physical book (or your Kindle, Nook, etc.) with you. Reading is a great way to help you "get away" even while you are away.
  7. Do something different. Eat food you have never tried, visit a new museum, swim with sharks if you are afraid of them (but use a cage). Whatever it is, challenge yourself to do something different, new or uncomfortable. You can only grow by challenging yourself in novel ways, and vacation is a great time to do exactly that.
  8. Plan your next vacation. By the time you return home, you should already have a plan for when and where to go next. This way, you always have a fun trip ahead to look forward to. Remember, one of the best parts about vacation is the anticipation of a break, and being proactive about caring for-and scheduling time for-yourself. As it turns out, there is nothing selfish about doing that.

Every company and culture is different. Some may find a policy of unlimited vacation proves successful, others may not. Ultimately, it's important for leadership teams to promote the advantages of time off, regardless of the nuances of their specific benefits package. It's healthy and invigorating for individuals, allows for creativity and stimulates new modes of thinking. There may even be a very strong business case for it: Recent research by "Project: Time Off" has found that taking a vacation can actually increase the likelihood of getting a raise or a promotion (by as much as 6.5 percent)!

Start changing the stigma around time off as "slacking off"-in reality, it's the opposite: good for your health and career, and beneficial for your employees and your company.

Published on: Aug 11, 2015