Imagine being paid $7,500 annually to take time off work for a dream vacation. The only requirement is that you must unplug. That means no email, no work calls. Get off the grid.
Chances are, you'd ask how you could sign up.
That's exactly what Denver technology company FullContact wants its employees to do. That, plus take 15 days off per year, at least. This progressive policy puts FullContact in a small band of organizations that recognize it's smart business to get employees out the door for vacation — and are willing to sweeten the pot to make sure they do.
Workers in the United States are terrible at taking vacations. We are a nation of workaholics, and we're only getting worse. Whereas we used to take an average of 20.3 vacation days per year between 1976 and 2000, by 2015 we were taking about 16. Last year, more than half of working Americans did not use all their time off, leaving 658 million vacation days on the table, according to Project: Time Off, an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association.
The reasons for this phenomenon are varied, but office culture plays a significant role. Fifty-eight percent of employees say their bosses don't support vacations, Project: Time Off found. Sixty-five percent say they receive mixed messages or discouraging messages — or don't hear anything at all — when it comes to vacation policies. Workers are left with uncertainty, both about taking a break in the first place and expectations for how available they should be when they are away.
Employees owe it to themselves to get better at unplugging. Not only are they are throwing money away in the form of unused benefits by refusing to go on holiday, they're also hurting their personal lives, and — counterintuitive as it seems — hurting their chances of promotion.
Employers also have plenty to gain from encouraging time off, rather than merely condoning it. Taking vacation improves physical and mental health. Employees return feeling refreshed and less stressed, and with a better attitude toward work, according to a 2014 Oxford Economics study. They are also more productive (even taking into account the work that's "lost" while the employee is away) and perform at higher levels.
"The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain," writes happiness expert Shawn Achor in Harvard Business Review. "To be truly engaged at work, your brain needs periodic breaks to gain fresh perspective and energy."
Vacation time is also good for a company's bottom line. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Achor points to research showing that when the brain can think positively, productivity improves by 31 percent, sales increase by 37 percent, and creativity and revenues can triple. Also, some employers have to pay employees for any unused time when they quit or retire — about $1,898 per outgoing employee. That adds up.
So how are companies encouraging their workers to step away from the desk and hit the road? Some have introduced unlimited vacation policies, meaning employees can take as much time off as they want, so long as their work gets done. But this could backfire. Kickstarter abandoned its unlimited vacation experiment when it resulted in employees actually taking fewer days off.
A less extreme option is offering workers a stipend on top of their regular salary when they take vacation. About 3 percent of employers have this perk. The online travel site Afar Media offers up to $2,000 a year for domestic or international trips. Employees are eligible once they cross the six-month mark with the company, and in return they only have to share photos, essays, or other content about the trip on the company website. Airbnb offers employees $500 per quarter toward an Airbnb accommodation. Evernote shells out $1,000 per year so long as an employee takes at least five consecutive days off.
Since FullContact started offering vacation incentives, the company has seen increased productivity, along with a significant drop in health care costs and sick days. And, as the company's Chief People Officer Eden Elder told USA Today, "We do not have turnover. People want to stay."