How to get comfortable with your team taking time off

Do you ever wonder what your team is up to while they’re away on leave? Or get a bit anxious waiting for them to return?

Maybe you find yourself looking for reasons to say “no” when a holiday request comes in.

You might not be alone. When there’s targets to hit, investors to please and customers to satisfy, it can be tempting to want to keep everyone working as much as possible.

But this just isn’t effective for most companies.

Employees taking time off is healthy - for themselves, for you, and for the company. We think you should encourage time off more, so here’s a few reasons to get more comfortable with it.

Time off improves productivity

Some managers think in one language, and one language only - productivity. So let’s start there.

Having a culture that allows, enables and encourages people to take decent time off will improve productivity.  

Taking time off decreases absenteeism, improves health, and reduces the likelihood of burnout. That means lowered staff turnover and better job performance - meaning a much healthier balance sheet for any business.

The benefits of leave are neatly summarised by strategist Joe Robinson:

"in the knowledge economy, it’s not how maxed-out your gray matter is that leads to productive results, it’s how fresh your brain is. A focused, energized brain gets the most work done the fastest. Policies that keep minds in the red zone of chronic stress and see endurance as a measure of commitment undermine productivity and fly in the face of all the data."

But won't I be seen as a slacker if I'm taking time off? Hardly. The path to workplace success doesn't require 50-hour weeks and an obsessive attendance record.

According to Harvard Business Review, taking annual leave actually increases your chances of climbing the career ladder in your workplace:

"people who take all of their vacation time have a 6.5% higher chance of getting a promotion or a raise than people who leave 11 or more days of paid time off on the table. That percentage may sound small (and it is a correlation versus a causation), but it is the polar opposite of the idea that staying at work might mean getting ahead. It simply doesn’t."

So if you want to get ahead, get some holidays booked for yourself and your team.

Unused annual leave isn't a good thing

Some companies - especially those that don't prioritise leave-taking - are prone to building up annual leave backlogs. By the time summer comes round, they've had less than half taken, and by winter there can be loads left outstanding.

And workaholic managers pressuring staff to work as much as possible makes this worse.

Not only does the backlog cause all sorts of effects - especially during times of mass disruption like the pandemic - but it creates a culture that doesn't respect time off as much as it should. While some annual leave can be carried over to the next year (and in 2020 some allowances have been extended to benefit key workers), most of it is lost.

Even for the most eager-to-impress workers, that's not a good thing. Think of it this way - if you don't take the annual leave you're rightly owed, you're working for free. You're not working more; you're volunteering your time.

To address these, companies need to provide generous leave allowances, and encourage their staff to take time off. If you've got a leave allowance, use it - and make sure your team does too.

Hot stone bath in the mountains
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan / Unsplash

Delegate so you can take time off yourself

There’s only one way to fully understand the benefits of taking a holiday - taking one yourself.

And you have to do it properly; disconnect as much as possible. If you’re checking your work emails every day, it's not going to work.

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is strong in particularly driven people. If you’re in love with your job (or even a bit of a workaholic) you might find yourself craving the buzz of the office or endless Slack chatter. This, alongside the anxiety of leaving things alone for a while, can bring about that strong urge to stay connected.

So how do you get over it? Get better at delegating, and start trusting your employees more.

This means building processes beforehand, whether that’s by documenting things (using tools like Loom video explainers or Cursive Scribe user guides) or automating manual processes with tools like Zapier (which you can have up and running in an afternoon with hardly any technical know-how).

It might harm the ego a bit to know you’re not ’needed’ while you’re away, but you should see that as a success - you’ve created such a capable team that you can trust them to steer the ship while you’re gone.

If you’re a strategic leader, the absence of your voice can be a refreshing opportunity for working team members to think differently for a while.

Remember - there’s a difference between strategic insight and execution. If staff can’t do their jobs without you, that’s a systemic problem that needs addressing with training and processes. You don’t want to be the single point of failure.

But what you do bring to the table is the ability to push new projects forward, see things others can’t see, and motivate others to do their very best.

And while it’s not always possible to forget about work - especially if you’re in a senior position - taking time to rest will help your subconscious mind figure out those taxing problems for you. A rested mind is a powerful one.