It's time to stop thinking about vacation time as a benefit | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to the Bellingham Business Journal

Recently I was speaking with a neighbor, a younger person, who was talking about his feelings of needing to take some time off work. “So why not just schedule some time in the next month,” I asked. I was taken back by his response.

“Well, I only have a week paid vacation time each year and I’d like to hold off until the weather gets cooler,” he said.

It has been a long time since I worked for someone else but one week of paid vacation annually hardly seemed adequate for my young friend to recreate, refresh and ready himself for extended periods of performance in the mentally challenging role he holds.

When I started my “career” with a major petroleum company in 1973 I recall how my new manager explained to me that the company was going to generously provide me two weeks paid vacation time after one year of service and after five years I’d have another week added. I am not sure my manager realized that since I was just coming from six years of higher education with three weeks off between trimesters in addition to summers, a “generous” two-week vacation seemed more like a sentence to servitude than a benefit. That was more than 40 years ago and here my young friend was in 2015 with just a single week paid vacation time after a couple of years with his employer!

That conversation disturbed me! I started thinking about the necessity for knowledge workers to regularly and intentionally involve themselves in the practice of refreshment. I am not talking about the worn out conversation around “using all your vacation time.” I mean an intentional practice of unplugging, shutting down the commercial part of our brains and just playing at something. So I started this morning with a visit to Webster’s online dictionary:

Main Entry: 1va·ca·tion   

1 : a respite or a time of respite from something : INTERMISSION, REST
2 obsolete a : freedom from work or cares :
LEISURE b : time free for something else; specifically : time for contemplation
3 a : a scheduled period during which activity or work is suspended. 

Three usages of the word into the common definition and there has yet to be mention of vacation as an employee benefit or employer concession! To be fair, that meaning does come shortly after what I have shown here but it is not at the top of the list.

The point I mean to get to is that the subject of employee vacations remains as symbolic as it is practical and to that extent I see an issue that potentially affects employee engagement. The symbolism of course is reflective of an era where employers were considered the “grantors” of any condition of employment. For many, many years in the North American economy employment was considered to extend at the pleasure of the employer. This mindset was simply a matter of fact for decades. The times may have changed but much of the mindset remains intact.

In an article I found in Fortune, “Flexible Vacation Policies are Here to Stay,” reporter Shelley DuBois opens with a most provocative series of questions:

“You’re an adult. You know how to prioritize your time to do your job. So why should your company ration out vacation reluctantly and monitor when you spend it? Wouldn’t it be nice to do away with vacation-day limits entirely, so you could leave work whenever you want for as long as you feel you need?”

So, if you are an employer, does considering this concept of flexible vacation time sound revolutionary and make you a bit lightheaded? Does it leave you feeling weakened in some way?

If it does I’d suggest that you may unconsciously place more of a premium on control in your business than you do productivity. Viewed from the perspective of prioritizing practices that promote engagement, a change in your current policies may be worth looking at.

You would of course need to consider your own business and the needs for customer satisfaction as the basis to work from. But here’s some encouragement: The company I started in 1989 began with a flexible vacation policy and until I left in mid-2010 I can say for sure that we never had a recorded incident of abuse of this practice. More often than not I found myself in the position of telling employees that they needed to take time.

When was your last vacation? Did you really disconnect?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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