There is a moment during every one of my vacations when I start to hear Al Pacino’s voice in my head.
It’s the seminal scene from Godfather III when an aging Pacino laments his inability to free himself from the criminal clutches of the family business.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Indeed, every time I think I’m safely on vacation, my job pulls me back in.
Even when I plan months in advance, lay all the groundwork for a well-earned respite, I find myself slowly drawn back into the day-to-day of my job.
I change my voice mail to direct callers to someone else, activate my out-of-office reminder and notify just about anyone who needs to know that I’m going to be away.
It doesn’t take long before the unanswered calls begin to queue up on the home screen of my mobile phone. And then, I start getting those emails: “I know you’re on PTO but ...”
The next thing I know, I’m spending an increasing amount of time each day responding to email. I start to answer some of those calls. It doesn’t take long before I’m agreeing to jump on a couple of video calls.
It leaves me feeling like I need a vacation from my vacation.
Why is it so hard for leaders to take time off? In part, it’s because right now it’s hard for everyone to take time off from work, particularly leaders.
The epidemic of unused vacation time
When you think about the ways in which work creeps back into our vacation time, perhaps it’s not surprising that many of us just don’t use the PTO (paid/planned/personal time off) we’ve earned.
A 2021 LHH survey on LinkedIn revealed that an astounding 35 percent of respondents didn’t use any vacation time in the previous year, and 34 percent only used some of the days they were owed. Only 19 percent – less than one in five – used all the vacation they had earned.
This survey was consistent with a trend established in 2020, the first year of the global pandemic, which saw travel restrictions trigger a significant decline in the amount of vacation time used. A December 2020 survey by IPX1031, a global investment property exchange firm, found that 37 percent of respondents had put their travel plans on hold indefinitely and another 20 percent were planning to take time off but didn’t know when.
It should be noted that this chronic inability to take the time that we’ve earned predates the pandemic.
Research from the U.S. Travel Association showed that in 2018, American travelers left 768 million PTO days unused, which represented more than a quarter of all the paid vacation time provided by employers.
We’re also reluctant to take time off when we’re sick or burned out.
A 2020 global survey from Aetna International, one of the world’s largest providers of health benefits, found more than half of all employees with a diagnosed mental health issue lied to their managers about the reasons they were taking time off, if they took time off at all; 30 percent of respondents said they did not take a single sick day, while 47 percent said they would not take a sick day even if they were suffering from crippling stress.
Those findings echo data from a 2021 global survey done by The Adecco Group, which drilled deep into the pandemic-era working experience. This survey found that globally 40 percent of respondents who worked remotely were reluctant to take time off when they were sick.
That same survey showed quite clearly the consequences of not taking time off, either as vacation or to recover from a physical or mental health issue: burnout. The survey found that worldwide 40 percent of respondents were suffering from burnout.
Antidotes to PTO reluctance
Recognizing that the inability to take time off from work is taking a huge toll on their people, some of the world’s biggest companies are employing some radical strategies.
PricewaterhouseCoopers has started to pay its people $250 for every week of vacation they take off. Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser recently announced she was banning video calls on Fridays and had designated May 28 as “Citi Reset Day,” a company-wide, one-day holiday.
"I know, from your feedback and my own experience, the blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being," Fraser wrote in a company-wide memo. "It's simply not sustainable."
We need to do something to help our people recharge their batteries. But affecting this kind of change is not going to happen organically; leaders need to be deliberate in rebooting policies and strategies so that they can truly get away from the job for a few days. Here are three practices that can help you take the time off you need to recharge:
1/ How many layers of approval do you really need? One of the things that constantly intrudes on my PTO is when people need to get my approval for various decisions: big expenditures, contract approvals, troubleshooting problems for a client. Although there are always going to be some things that are so big, you need to be involved, you do need to delegate a bit more responsibility for medium-to-large decisions. Done properly, it can make your team stronger, both in confidence and in performance.
2/ Nominate someone to stand in for you in meetings and decisions. As a close cousin to my first suggestion, it will be a lot easier to get away from the office if you have a clear “Number Two” in place. Think of it as part of a succession plan; empowering and training someone to stand in for you ensures there is capacity on your team to not only cover you on vacation, but in the event you need to unexpectedly be out of the office or are getting ready to retire. It will allow you to see who is, and who is not, wired for leadership.
3/ Specify when it’s okay for someone to intrude on your PTO. Work is important and you want people on your team who are dedicated and put in lots of discretionary effort. But set boundaries. Working at home during the pandemic, it seems like many people never actually finish their workdays. Put limits on calls and emails outside of business hours. This won’t only give you more breathing room, it will help ease the stress on your team.
PTO is not just an earned benefit; it’s a crucial commodity needed for any high-performing leader or team. Even the most resilient leaders become worn down by the pressures of the job and the rigors of the pandemic.
Remember, you need some time off to be the best possible leader you can be. Plan and then, enjoy.