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Employee Benefits: Hot Times, Summer in the…

Joetta L. Wagner

Joetta L. Wagner

employee benefits

employee benefits

Should employee benefits include summer vacation as a matter of course? The data says ‘yes.’

In 1966, a band called The Lovin’ Spoonful came out with Summer in the City. It pays homage to city life when the weather’s scorching hot during the day, and ears are ringing with the cacophony of car horns and jackhammers. “…All around, people looking half dead/Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head…” For many, summer is the time to take a vacation. Families are together, and if finances aren’t stretched too thin, they take off for places that offer a welcome relief from the familiar.

Are vacations a good idea for American workers, especially in the summer? Absolutely… yes. There are actual health benefits to kicking back and just having fun. Lolly Daskal, President of Lead From Within, identifies four health benefits linked to taking time off in an article for Inc.

  • Stress reduction
  • Heart disease prevention
  • Improved productivity
  • Better sleep

There are studies galore by institutions like the American Psychological Association, the University of Vienna, and the Framingham Heart Study, which conducted a landmark examination of coronary risk factors. They all say the same thing. Vacation, good. No vacation, bad. Time, once again, for employee benefits brokers to make adjustments.


corporate culture

In a number of industries (with notable exceptions like HVAC and landscaping companies) summer is a less hectic time of year. For families, the children are out of school. The daylight lasts longer and nature is full to bursting. Whether one opts for a “stay-cation” filled with iced tea and barbecues in the backyard, or a trans-ocean flight to an exotic locale, a vacation is time away from the pressures of work. In Maura Thomas’ article for the Harvard Business Review, she notes, “A vacation renews the perspective, creativity, and clarity of thought that gets buried by the fast pace of your everyday life.” So what’s the deal with Americans and vacations? They aren’t, they don’t, and some will argue, they can’t.

The American Way

There are some sobering statistics about Americans and vacation time. European workers get four weeks of paid vacation time. Many Americans get only two weeks’ worth. Still more American employees don’t take their full allotted vacation time. Why? Fear. Personal Finance Editor for Marketwatch, Quentin Fottrell, observes that most companies have “employment at will,” which means a person could be fired for any or no reason. With that hanging over an employee’s head, fear is omnipresent. What are the fear statistics?

  • 34% fear getting behind on their work
  • 30% believe no one else at their company can do the work while they’re out
  • 22% declare they are completely dedicated to their company
  • 21% feel they can never be disconnected

So employees end up surrendering their vacation – their paid vacation time – because of fear. That fear contributes to creative and emotional exhaustion. Which causes productivity to drop, missed deadlines, and underperformance. Which can lead to getting fired.

The U.S. Travel organization is facilitating a nationwide initiative called Project: Time Off, which focuses on the benefits of taking a vacation. Two of the statistics they’ve compiled are astonishing:

  • 662 Million Days of Unused Leave Annually
    If Americans were to use all their unused time off, it would deliver a $236 billion jolt to the U.S. economy and create 1.8 million new American jobs.
  • $66.4 Billion in Forfeited Benefits
    By giving up this time off, Americans are effectively volunteering hundreds of millions of days of free work for their employers, which results in $66.4 billion in forfeited benefits.

Americans are work martyrs. And they tend to be workaholics, too. The HR department should take a long, hard look at the employee benefits package. Specifically, look at vacation time – how it’s handled, what policies are in place, and what can be improved.

Less Work Equals More Success

There are some American companies that actively challenge the standard vacation policies of businesses and employee benefits packages. They provide a leaping-off point for HR to examine that works and what doesn’t. Jennifer Leiber, who penned “Vacation Policies You’ll Envy from Companies You Don’t Work For” for Fast Company, compiled a list of some very cool setups:

  • Software provider Full Contact has a policy that provides a $7,500 incentive for workers to take their vacation and actually disconnect
  • Travelzoo, a global travel company known for its deals, offers $1,500 stipends to employees take trips on their vacation time
  • The Santa Monica-based research organization RAND Corporation pays employees an extra 3% of their monthly base salary for each vacation day taken, and another 5% of their annual salary to those who take all 20 days

At a time when many corporate policies are shifting, human resources personnel and upper management should lead by example. Take a vacation. Get employees to do the same. Find a happy place, and go there to relax. Doctor’s orders.

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