3 Ways "Work Martyr" Culture Hurts Everyone, and 3 Ways Companies Are Changing It

All work and no play is the order of the day for many American workers -- surprisingly, by choice. Among those fortunate enough to earn paid time off, 41% say they don't plan to use it all this year, according to recent research. The latest study from the U.S. Travel Association shows that while almost all workers agree in principle with the idea that taking breaks is healthy, they're not putting that knowledge into practice, because it conflicts with their ideas about how to be a good employee -- and managers aren't making much of an effort to change their minds.

That's unfortunate, because workers who sacrifice their free time for the noble cause of more time at the office are doing more than just stressing themselves out. I spoke with USTA president and CEO Roger Dow about why the "work martyr" culture is also bad for employers and the economy as a whole -- and how some thriving companies help get people away from their desks.

Where work martyrs come from
Fear is a big factor in keeping people in the office when they should be out doing something else. In fact, the USTA study found that the two biggest reasons workers don't take more vacation days are that they think no one else can do their work, and they think there will be a mountain of it to slog through when they return.

Even for employees who know they need a break, the culture of work martyrdom is contagious and pervasive. "We create this guilt," Dow said in his interview. "If you take any time off, your colleagues might call you a slacker. How many times have you said, 'Hey, I'm going to be off next week, I'm going to the beach with my family,' and one of your co-workers says, 'Must be nice. I wish I could.'"

PTO = paid time off. Source: U.S. Travel Association/GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communication.

Adding to the pressure from co-workers is the fact that while 95% of executives surveyed said they think workers should take their vacation time, two-thirds of workers said they never hear that from higher-ups, Dow said. Mix in worries about the economic recovery, and suddenly it seems like staying at the desk is the safest option. Except that it's not.

Worn-out workers
Individuals who don't take their days off may earn the respect of their peers and managers, but they pay for it in a number of important ways. Sitting all day has been tied to health risks, and personal relationships suffer when the people involved are hardly ever around to relate to their partners, friends, and children. The consensus among managers, according to Dow, is that time off actually makes for better workers, because a break allows them to recharge, raises morale, and boosts productivity when they return to work.

"It's almost like weightlifting," Dow said. "Any trainer tells you the worst thing you can do is lift weights seven days a week. Work is the same way."

Bookkeeping burdens
Lower productivity is just one of the ways that overwork hurts employers. Workers who continually roll over their unused vacation time from one year to the next may think they're being thrifty, but rollovers create two particular kinds of hassles for employers.

First, Dow said, there's the cost of the hours spent by the accounting, bookkeeping, and legal departments to make sure those days are properly tracked. Second, and more of an issue for investors, is the fact that those rolled-over days count as a liability on the company's balance sheet -- a liability that grows larger every time someone decides to be a martyr and skip that week off.

To counter this, Dow said many companies are moving to modified "use it or lose it" policies to motivate people to go away for a while. "Companies are not going to a hard use it or lose it, where you get three weeks and if you can't take it, sorry about that. Most of them are saying, 'We're going to allow you to carry forward five days, but you're no longer going to be able to carry forward 20.'" Such policies encourage breaks while giving workers a cushion of days off in case of emergency.

The economic impact of no time off
Unused days off have an impact outside the company, too. Workers who are parked at a desk all year long aren't out "buying a pina colada at the beach or going shopping or to restaurants," Dow said. Individually, it may not matter much, but in the aggregate, it matters a lot.

Earlier this year, a Travel Effect study found that unused vacation days cost the American economy $160 billion annually. If U.S. workers were to take just one extra day of their paid time off each year, it would deliver a $73 billion boost to the overall economy, said Cait Douglas, Travel Effect's communications director, at the time.

Corporate fixes for work martyrdom
It's clear that chaining oneself to a desk or other job for the greater good does more harm than good. Changing the long-standing culture of martyrdom won't happen overnight, Dow said, but some companies offer smart examples of how managers can encourage people to get out the door for a while.

1. Make time off a company value
Enterprise software giant SAS Institute has landed in the top three of Fortune's "Best 100 Companies to Work For" for five years running. With annual revenues over $1 billion, it's a big, effective business, but it's also a place where workers aren't afraid to take days off. More than 95% of SAS workers said taking days off is easy -- and nearly as many say management fosters a health work-life balance. Employees having trouble finding that balance can check in with one of half a dozen social workers on staff who can help adjust benefits and find resources so they can get the breaks they need.

2. Pay workers to take a break
Paid time off is one thing. Paid paid time off? Surely not. But Colorado software start-up Full Contact offers just that -- $7,500 per year to employees who unplug entirely from the office and indulge in a real vacation. That's one way to boost morale -- and give a nice little jolt to the travel sector.

Dow said USTA has a similar, although not as lavish, policy. USTA employees who take all their vacation days each year start the new year with a $500 bonus. "We have a culture that says it's OK and encouraged to take time off, and our people are extraordinarily productive."

3. Do away with "vacation days" altogether
The most radical solution to managing paid time off is to scrap the concept and let employees do what they want to do. Dow said a recent talk with Expedia  (NASDAQ: EXPE  ) CEO Dara Khosrowshahi provided a good example of what a "no vacation policy" policy can do for a company. Khosrowshahi did away with vacation time after realizing that tracking it was a drain on company resources. Instead, Expedia workers are encouraged to take the time off they need, supervisors are encouraged to grant it, and recordkeeping is a lot simpler.

"He said from an accounting and bookkeeping standpoint, you can't believe how many hours it saves just on that side. And employees look at it and say, 'They really trust me.'"

That issue of trust is one of the reasons Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) has a similar policy. Employees there have unlimited time off and are trusted to use it wisely. To drive home the point that work martyrdom is not a company value, a Netflix culture slideshow declares hard work "not relevant" and tells workers that more face time is not the key to success, while "sustained A-level performance, despite minimal effort, is rewarded."

More productivity, lower administrative costs, better talent
The benefits of getting away are clear for workers, companies, and the economy. Smart vacation policies should be a consideration for investors, too. Companies that adopt a pro-vacation stance can benefit from increased employee productivity and reduced administrative costs. Over the long term, companies that foster a time-off culture will attract a more competitive pool of talent, meaning that at some point, other companies may have to sacrifice their work martyr culture in order to stay competitive.

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