For employers, paid vacations is money well spent

By Josh McJannett

With March break fast fading into memory, most Canadians who haven’t already spent their annual allotment of paid vacation are looking ahead to July and August for their next chance to escape the grind.

And, if you weren’t among the families sunning on a beach in Florida or skiing at Mont Tremblant this month, you could well be part of a growing number of Canadians planning on vacationing at the office this year.

Canadians are working longer hours, taking less vacation and burning out from exhaustion and illness more than ever before, costing employers valuable productivity according to Statistics Canada and Ipsos-Reid.

The trend has led many to conclude that the way to increase competitiveness may actually be to disregard established thinking and insist employees work less.

For decades, common wisdom has asserted vacations costs employers valuable productivity. This assumption is based on false logic.

Employees aren’t uniformly productive—they’re human after all—which means they’re susceptible to stress, they get tired and, occasionally, they need a break to remain fully functional.

It’s for these reasons most Western nations instituted a 40-hour work week and set norms around weekends and public holidays. There’s more to creating a competitive economy than simply having employees at their desks.

The European labour movement pushed legislated, paid vacations onto the public agenda in the 1960s and 70s. Today, most Europeans are entitled to a minimum of 25 paid vacation days a year, starting the day they are hired.

While many U.S. states still don’t require a minimum number of paid holidays, Canada struck a middle ground by requiring 14 days of annual vacation in most provinces.

The issue, increasingly, isn’t only about providing more vacation days, but actually getting Canadians to use the time off they’re already being provided.

More than half of all working Canadians are entitled to take more than the legislated minimum of two weeks of paid vacation. However, fewer than ever are taking full advantage of their entitlement.

According to an annual survey by Ipsos-Reid, a quarter of the Canadian workforce claims not to take all of their allotted vacation days each year.

The survey shows that many blame bad planning, while others blame kids’ school schedules as an impediment. Still others say they worry about missing an important development at the office or fear

leaving their co-workers saddled with extra work.

The result has been an unhealthy increase in the number of cases of stress-related health problems and burnout, the last stage of chronic stress. Statistics Canada pegs the cost of workplace stress to the Canadian economy at $12 billion a year.

While a lack of vacation time cannot claim to be the sole cause of these problems, there is evidence to suggest that time away from stressors such as work, deadlines and routines can have a positive effect on our health and, ultimately, our productivity.

By waking to this fact, businesses stand to increase output, morale and profitability.

The answer isn’t to impose a one-size-fits-all legislated increase in holiday time.

In fact, there is no shortage of examples of companies who have realized the benefit well-rested, relaxed and refreshed employees can have on the bottom-line.

Vancouver-based 1-800-GOT-JUNK, a junk pickup service operating across North America, recognized the importance of vacation time for their employees years ago. Concerns about workplace stress were particularly pertinent given the labour-intensive nature of tossing junk into the back of pickup trucks day in and day out. Accordingly, the company instituted a standard five-week vacation for their employees. Franchisees insist on a minimum amount of time away from the office every year.

Similarly, Jancoa, a Cincinnati-based janitorial service, found itself wrestling to retain employees and scrambling to avoid expensive overtime costs two years ago.

In a bold move, the company extended its vacation benefits for its 468 employees to three weeks.

Productivity and morale increased to the point where the company was able to eliminate overtime and cut its retention and recruiting costs. Jancoa claims the net cost was less than seven cents per employee.

Many other employers have used vacation, flexible work schedules and ‘benefit hours,’ time employees can use at any time to complement vacation time, as incentive for increased productivity.

While governments can play a helpful role in setting minimum standards for vacation time, the real answer lies elsewhere.

By showing employers the facts about the benefits of paid vacation time as a tool to increase productivity, working Canadians stand to reap benefits far beyond what even an increase in the legislated minimum could provide.

For those debating whether they should take time away from the office this year, the question should be whether their employers can afford to have them not to.