Vacation Bonuses: Some Employers Paying Workers to Chill (1)

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By Kristen Ricaurte Knebel

Some workers feel it’s never the right time to take a vacation (bad thinking) even as their colleagues dab on sunscreen, get travel visas, or stock up on w i ne for a cozy staycation. So some companies are paying reluctant employees to step away from the desk, whether via bonuses, or by dangling generous vacation stipends or other perks their way.

More than half of Americans left paid vacation days unused in 2017, adding up to 705 million unused days, according to a recent report from Project: Time Off. Some employees skip their vacations to get the “most-indispensable” award, some really are extremely busy, and others get stressed thinking about saving money for a trip.

Workers who don’t take vacations can end up overworked and burned-out, so employers lose their productivity, as well as being on the hook for all of that untaken leave. In 2016, American employers held a $272 billion vacation liability on their balance sheets, according to Project: Time Off.

To combat this phenomenon, employers are trying to help would-be workaholics change course. Airbnb offers employees a $2,000 a year stipend to use at any Airbnb in the world. Canadian-based G Adventures also helps workers to travel the world--on its tours. The company, which has employees across the globe, including in the U.S., gives them a travel allowance of up to $2,900 every 10 months toward one of its trips and flights.

The U.S. Travel Association, which sponsors the Project Time Off initiative, pays its employees $500 just to take all their vacation for the year. In 2014, the first year the benefit was offered, the association went from having 19 percent of employees using all of their leave to 91 percent. The cost was $26,000 to give the bonuses, and the association cut its vacation liabilities by over $36,000, Katie Denis, vice president and lead researcher at the project, told Bloomberg Law.

And several other employers like FullContact Inc., BambooHR, G Adventures, Steelhouse, Polsinelli PC, and Moz are offering vacation stipends ranging from $2,000 to $7,500 plus roundtrip airfare with one employer increasing the amount substantially every year, along with the employee’s tenure.

To curb the reverse-staycation problem—when employees leave town but keep working—some employers are requiring that workers unplug completely while away.

When employees return from vacation, they feel happier, better rested, and less stressed, according to Expedia Inc.‘s 2017 Vacation Deprivation report. Workers also return to the office with a better attitude, feel more focused, are more productive, and more relaxed, the report said.

Paying employees to use vacation days might be part of a bigger push by employers to help workers find a better work-life balance. Getaway stipends of any size may help workers feel more comfortable going on vacation. Seventy-nine percent of workers said they feel stressed when they think about saving up for a vacation, according to a Paychex survey on workplace stress.

But not having enough money for vacation or needing to deal with scheduling hassles isn’t the real barrier, Denis said.

“When you look at barriers and you look at actual behavior, the thing that’s really stopping them is the workplace. People don’t want to look less dedicated,” she said.

Selling the Concept of Vacations

When advertising software company SteelHouse found that its employees were working long hours and not really taking breaks, it decided to give them a push.

SteelHouse started offering employees $2,000 a year toward vacations in 2011. The benefit bumps to $5,000 after five years with the company and increases by $1,000 every subsequent year. The money doesn’t have to be used in one shot, it can be spread out over the whole year, Anna McMurphy, head of people, culture, and entertainment at SteelHouse, told Bloomberg Law. The company is based in Culver City, Calif.

At first employees were asking if they could use the money toward home improvement projects—they can’t—but they eventually caught on, taking weekend trips to Las Vegas and cruises to Mexico.

Offering a benefit like this shows employees appreciation for all the work they’ve done and they return from vacations refreshed and happy, McMurphy said.

Unplugging to Energize

It was a realization of his own inability to disconnect from the office that inspired CEO founder Bart Loran to provide unlimited time off and a steep vacation stipend—$7,500—to FullContact employees. The Denver-based technology company gives the annual stipend after employees have been with the company for a year.

Loran was the typical can’t-let-go type on his own vacations until he saw the light. “I would sneak off to check emails or take phone calls, until one day I had an epiphany of sorts and recognized I was missing out on valuable time with my family,” Loran, told Bloomberg Law in an email.

FullContact’s policy also requires that employees fully disconnect from work. FullContact archives employee email in-boxes until after they return from vacation.

“I want my employees to enjoy their time away and be fully present with the people around them. I see people that take advantage of the policy come back recharged and focused, which makes for very happy, productive employees,” Loran said.

BambooHR’s Many Definitions of Getting Away

BambooHR also talks about the productivity surge after taking a break. The Utah-based human resources software company gives employees up to $2,000 a year to go on vacations. That’s in line with the company’s core focuses: quality of life, Cassie Whitlock, director of human resources, told Bloomberg Law. The benefit helps employees pay for travel, tickets, and food related to the travel.

Some employees have used the money to take trips they otherwise wouldn’t, including delayed honeymoons, service trips to Kenya, and traveling overseas to spread a parent’s ashes in their home country, Whitlock said.

The stipend is a way to help ensure that workers aren’t just taking time off to take it, but are doing something more substantial. The company also wanted to make sure that money wasn’t the reason workers weren’t taking vacations. The benefit has also spurred BambooHR to be more flexible to support it, working with managers to help handle workflows while employees are out so they don’t come back to a mountain of work.

“We don’t want people to be so buried when they get back that it was a punishment to go on vacation,” Whitlock said.

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