01/10/2017 04:23 EST | Updated 01/10/2017 04:25 EST

Canadian Workers Deserve A Break From The Dreaded 'Time-Off Tax'

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The holidays have come to a close and workers across the country should be returning to work well-rested and recharged. But the reality is many people pay a steep price for taking a break, and not just on their credit card bill.

The latest ADP Sentiment Survey reveals that most workers today pay a hefty "time-off tax" in the form of extra work on either side of a vacation.

According to our research, before taking a one-week vacation, three quarters (75 per cent) of working Canadians say they will have to do extra work ahead of time to prepare. Almost the same number (73 per cent) say they will have to do extra work afterwards to get caught up. These hours add up. On average, workers report putting in 21 extra hours -- 10 before they leave, and 11 hours when they get back.

That's half a week of extra work just to take one week off!

Faced with this hefty time-off tax, it would seem that some Canadians might actually prefer to just keep working. Another recent survey revealed that working Canadians will leave a total of 31-million unused vacation days on the table this year. That's an average of three days per worker.


Interestingly, the time-off tax hits some Canadians harder than others. Workers in Quebec are the least likely to put in extra time before or after a holiday, with 53 per cent reporting extra work. In fact, two in 10 Quebecers say more work isn't likely to happen at all, whereas only about five per cent of workers in the rest of Canada can say the same. Joie de vivre, perhaps?

On the other hand, 90 per cent of workers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and almost as many in Alberta report they are putting in extra time around vacations, perhaps feeling pressured by lower energy prices and fewer employment alternatives.

It's important that employers and managers resist the urge to connect skipping a vacation or racking up extra hours with a strong work ethic or improved productivity. In fact, a previous ADP Sentiment Survey reveals that, despite all this time on the job, Canadian workers don't feel particularly productive.

Instead, we should view the time-off tax and unused vacation as a missed opportunity to improve both well-being and performance. In fact, an internal study by a global professional services firm finds that for each additional 10 hours of vacation its employees take, their year-end performance ratings improved by eight per cent, and frequent vacationers were significantly less likely to leave the firm.

We should view the time-off tax and unused vacation as a missed opportunity to improve both well-being and performance.

With this in mind, employees and employers should consider three New Year's resolutions for a more balanced approach to vacation time. 

1. Check your culture

Some workplaces breed a culture of overwork, whether it's a start-up struggling to build their business or a busy corporate environment where the work never stops. A culture that applauds overwork is a culture that encourages burnout and costly turnover.

John Trougakos, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management, believes the ethos of encouraging overwork is increasing. He sees more corporations adopting an austerity mentality that constantly demands "more for less" from employees. When vacations are viewed as a perk or lack of commitment, employees can feel pressured to "make up for it" on either side of a few days off.

Instead, companies should encourage and celebrate vacations. This starts with managers ensuring that employees take all of their vacation, and setting an example by taking their holidays, too. And let's put an end, once and for all, to the acceptability of calling and emailing colleagues while they're on vacation.

sleeping worker desk

2. Plan proactively for time off

Many people want time off in the summer and around the big traditional holidays, but most workplaces can't just shut down. Similarly, many businesses have a predictable busy season when it's all hands on deck. Here at the start of the year, managers have a great opportunity to work with their teams to schedule vacations well ahead of time, avoiding last-minute pressure to take time off when things are busy at work. A few companies have even started offering unlimited vacation days.

Since 2004, Netflix employees have been allowed to take as many vacation days as they want. During the same period, the company has grown its market capitalization to over $51 billion. Unlimited holidays may be too extreme for some workplaces, but Netflix's philosophy that greater autonomy and trust breeds a more responsible workplace culture is worth considering.

3. Take the pressure off

In many cases, the time-off tax is simply caused by a lack of visibility into workloads and processes. When managers have blind spots around how busy different members of their teams are at any given time, they can inadvertently pile on more work, not realizing those people may be trying to cover for a vacationing co-worker. Similarly, with leaner staffing, some mission-critical functions, such as payroll or inventory management, may rest with just one person, meaning they need to make sure everything is set up to run perfectly while they take a break. The result: a big time-off tax before and after their vacation.

Companies using workforce management software can give their managers an accurate line of sight into workloads and critical functions, which should help with better vacation planning. As well, for work that simply can't stop for a vacation, it's important to make sure those employees have back-up. Whether it's outsourcing the tasks to a third party, asking a colleague to help out or bringing in some temporary help, taking the pressure off before, during and after a vacation, will result in a healthier, more productive team.

Quality vacation time is critical for mental and physical well-being, and a healthy workforce is critical for growth and success. It's time Canadians take a more deliberate approach to planning for and fully enjoying some tax-free time off.

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