Science of Success

Harvard professor: How to get your team to take vacations and return 'more refreshed, more creative, more energized'

Kathrin Ziegler | DigitalVision | Getty Images

Year-round, tens of millions of Americans travel for holidays like July 4 and Memorial Day weekend, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Still, when it comes to taking their vacations, Americans do not take full advantage of their paid time off. On average, Americans had 9.5 unused vacation days left at the end of 2021, according to a January 2022 study of 1,021 U.S. adults by software company Qualtrics.

"People get pretty worried about taking their vacation because they don't want to lose their opportunity on a project or seem like they don't really care about their job," says Ashley Whillans, behavioral psychologist, assistant professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Time Smart."

But "vacations are really important to recover from our always-on work culture," she says. They help us avoid burnout and come back to our work and lives "more refreshed, more creative, more energized, feeling more positive."   

When it comes to ensuring employees take their paid time off, managers can do a lot to encourage them. Here are three tactics managers can try, according to experts.

'Take it yourself and show how it's done'

"Sometimes we forget or neglect how much when you are leading the team, your actions can influence how other people on the team feel," says Angelina Darrisaw, career coach and founder and CEO of C-Suite Coach, about the importance of leading by example.

"If you are not taking your vacation yourself," she says, "then you might unintentionally be creating a culture of pressure where your employees do not feel that they have the ability to do that."

One simple and crucial way to give your employees the sense that it's not just OK but expected that they take their full vacation time is to "take it yourself and show how it's done," says Stacie Haller, a career expert at

Set protocols: 'Who's going to back up that person's work?'

Sometimes when employees want to go away, they fear they'll miss out on important information at work or that no one will be there to cover their tasks and they'll fall behind. Managers "have to put in place the parameters so someone feels like they can take a vacation," says Haller. "There should be protocols. Who's going to back up that person's work?"

Let your employees know that when they decide to go away, there will be systems in place to ensure their work gets done, and that they will not fall behind. Set up a meeting with them prior to their time off and iron out all of the details of who will cover their day-to-day tasks.

You can also let them know what the team will be working on and give them a chance to give their input before they leave. "If they feel like their input is going to be heard, even if they're not there," says Whillans, "that's going to increase people's likelihood to truly disconnect during their vacations."

'Framing can go a long way'

Since benefits like vacation days are part of your team's compensation package, "people leave a lot of money on the table" when they don't take them, says Whillans. Reminding them of that can help motivate them to take it, too.

She suggests looking into your team's history and vacation habits, doing some calculations, then saying something like, "on average our team leaves X amount of dollars on the table by not taking all of their paid vacation." Remind them that there's a slow period coming up or that they're simply encouraged to take their full vacation time throughout the year.

"People value money but undervalue time," she says. "So framing can go a long way" in ensuring people take advantage of those moments off that they're entitled to.

Check out:

Harvard professor: 5 activities can increase your happiness fast, and they're free

Harvard psychologist: The toxic money mindset that even millionaires have—and how to break out of it

Harvard professor: Outsourcing chores could make you as happy as getting an $18,000 raise

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Inside a travel influencer's $44,000 condo in Detroit, MI
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