For about a decade, I never took more than a long weekend off. During that time, I ran a large store, worked for a major technology company, and served as the editor of a daily newspaper. None of these companies -- not even the one that owned the newspaper, which has a well-deserved reputation for treating people badly -- required me to forego longer vacations. I chose not to take time off out of a misguided sense of duty, self-importance, and lack of understanding.
Now I'm a little more self-aware. I started by taking the Fourth of July week off every year (because you only miss four days of work), and even that small break showed me that time away makes me better at my job. It also showed me that while I'm valued by my coworkers and bosses, they can make it through a week or two without me.
That has led me on a quest to take more time off. Luckily, I work for an employer that values work/life balance, but many people aren't so lucky. That's a mistake being made by employers both big and small. Whether you're an employee or an employer, there are real benefits to time off, and they go both ways.
Take a break
Vacations aren't just about tropical drinks, relaxing, and not going to work. They're a relief from the pressure valve of working every day.
Taking vacation alleviates job stress according to a study from the American Psychological Association. Those findings match similar reports from a study of Canadian lawyers and one done at the University of Vienna.
Neither the worker nor the company can necessarily see that someone has become stressed in their job. In fact, some companies may think that because they offer a relaxed workplace stress isn't a factor. In reality, stresses pile up in even the most laid-back atmospheres, and time not at work is needed to recharge.
"Vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle. We emerge from a successful vacation feeling ready to take on the world again, wrote Susan Krauss Whitbourne for Psychology Today. "We gain perspective on our problems, get to relax with our families and friends, and get a break from our usual routines."
What should businesses do?
A lot of people don't take time off out of a sense of duty. That's actually a good problem, as it indicates a well-run company where employees like working. But breaking that cycle requires the company take an active role in getting employees to take vacations.
The first step, of course, is offering a liberal vacation policy. Make sure even new workers get two weeks off in their first year, and be more generous with employees with seniority or higher-level jobs.
After granting the time, make sure people actually take it by scheduling employee time off. That has a practical impact at smaller companies -- you can make sure you give people time off and still have the staff needed to operate. Don't force people to take the weeks you want them to, but make sure they do schedule some time off (and be flexible with changes).
Once the time comes for workers to be off, make sure they actually disconnect. That means not emailing them questions and encouraging them to disconnect (you may even offer a vacation bonus for staying away).
It may be hard to operate without some employees. Finding that out is important, and allows you to make plans for what would happen if that employee left.
Ideally, after a week, your employee will come back relaxed and ready to go. They will also attack their job knowing that the company survived, and more stress-free vacations are ahead.