Why you shouldn’t force employees to take vacation time

Mandatory time off doesn’t do workers any good. Employers would get better results through greater flexibility

Man relaxing on beach, checking phone; a lifeguard is telling him to get back to relaxing

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

Automotive worker Chris is saying thanks, but no thanks to a vacation this year. Having worked at his current employer for almost a decade, the 35-year-old from Barrie, Ont., has accumulated more paid vacation days than he needs or even wants. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t take vacation at all,” he says. “I have a very strong work ethic.”

Ontario’s Employment Standards Act dictates that Chris is entitled to a minimum of two weeks of vacation per year, which he can forgo, provided his employer allows it.

You wouldn’t think he’d have any difficulty clocking out; most people consider time off to be good for minds and bodies, as well as workplace morale and productivity. Yet, as a whole, Canadians are pretty bad at taking time off. According an annual survey done by, close to 10 million vacation days went unused by Canadian workers in 2015. Among the most common reasons cited for skipping holiday time were having too much work to leave (32%) or needing the vacation pay, which employers are legally obliged to issue in lieu of time off, for other expenses (29%). Count Chris in the latter category: Workaholic tendencies aside, he counts on the money that comes from taking a payout instead of a holiday.

His company may not be so keen. In Canada, employers are within their rights to order staff to take time off. “It’s black-letter law,” says Jason Beeho, a Toronto employment lawyer. Businesses might do so to save money, yes, but also under the aegis of minimizing employee burnout. Canadians aren’t alone in this regard: In the U.S., companies such as Motorola and Charles Schwab have experimented with forced holidays, and even the government of Japan—a country with a word, karoshi, to describe sudden death caused by occupational exhaustion—is mulling mandatory time off.

But before you push your employees out the door with mai tais in hand, consider that people recharge in different ways, and not everyone wants to take time off. For these people—admittedly, not the majority—being forced to relax is not relaxing at all. Even if mandated onto a beach, workers who hate the idea of checking out—and Chris is one of them—would not really unwind. “If it’s not taken for the right reasons, it’s not really vacation,” observes Wendy Giuffre, a Calgary HR consultant, adding that employees only tend to unplug when they want to—not under order.

But that’s not the main reason companies should refrain from forcing employees to vacation. “The truth is, if you’re in the position that you have to mandate vacations, you have other stuff going on,” says Giuffre. Employees may feel the brief reprieve of a holiday is not enough to compensate for a tripled workload on their return. Or they may feel the firm’s culture subtly looks down on break takers.

These are substantial organizational problems, and forced vacation policies don’t solve any of them. What’s worse, such rules take control away from the employee, leading to feelings of powerlessness and disengagement, says Stew Friedman, author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life.

Far better, Friedman argues, to emulate forward-thinking companies like LinkedIn, Netflix and Calgary’s BluEra, which offer unlimited vacation policies to emphasize that it’s OK to take as much—or as little—time off, as long as employees get their jobs done. Good managers don’t force work or play, he adds, but “find a way to help employees organize their lives according to their own values.” That means giving people the freedom to set their own vacations and, crucially, sending unambiguous signals that no career harm will come from their choice to take time off. It also means letting them work when they want to.