Sink or Swim: The value of vacation time in a highly unusual summer

—The Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin answers real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, you can find their previous columns here.—

Q: Here’s a problem I never expected to have: my employees have been passing on taking much-needed time off. How do I get people to take their holidays?

A: If it makes you feel any better, you’re not alone in seeing big resistance to R&R this year. There seem to be a couple of reasons for it.

For starters, many people don’t know what to do with themselves or their kids this year. With weddings postponed, travel and summer camp (what summer camp?) cancelled, it’s hard to imagine that a vacation won’t feel a lot like every other day in this interminable year. But without the distraction of work.

Worse still is the pervasive fear that if your folks shut down the screen for a week or two, they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of the “first to go” list should the company find layoffs necessary. Holidays feel less relaxing with that cloud hanging over their heads.

So, what can you do? How about taking your own vacation? It may sound counterintuitive for you to take time off when your team won’t, but what you signal—what you demonstrate as important—really matters, because people follow the example set by their bosses.

Karin Onsager-Birch, CCO and co-president of FCB West in San Francisco says, “people need to see you do it or they feel they shouldn’t. Holidays are critical to mental health and we all need to feel safe to take them.” Onsanger-Birch is not only taking time off, but put together a team whose job was to research and build a toolkit of COVID-safe vacations for people at different ages and stages of life.

Things like: the best road trips within a couple of hours of home; safe, open campgrounds; best Airbnbs in a time of COVID; the RV option; what to bring when you dare not shop for days; packing for a week when you have a big family and a small car; staycations worth staying home for.

This not only makes holidays easier to organize, it helps people see that the company is serious about its commitment to employee downtime.

Jenny Smith, president/ECD of Ray Agency in St. John’s, wants everyone in her shop to take their hols and not worry about their jobs, so she chose radical transparency as way to make them more eager to pack up the car.

Smith shares it all, from financials to agency health. She opens the books on how things look this year compared to last, and what the near future holds. She also shares her own feelings about what’s going on, making it easy for them to do the same. She recently sent an email to the entire agency saying that she didn’t feel like working that day and just needed to put her energy into her garden. She was flooded with thank yous from people who now also feel free to take “mental health and enjoying summer” days as needed.

Some places are taking a leaf out of Jacinda Ardern’s playbook and offering a four-day week throughout the summer, so that people can explore closer to home and put some money back into hard-pressed local economies. It not only feels good, it does good.

This A+ plan came to us via a consultant who works with design firms around the world. One of her clients is giving everyone the month of July off to recharge, so they’re physically and mentally healthy going into the next leg of this marathon year. They’ve squared it with clients and figured out how to cover people’s salaries as a one-time perk. It’s a great COVID idea, and also a killer retention strategy.

Hearing that reminded us of a design firm in Seattle that several years ago began giving its entire staff a month-long sabbatical every summer on top of their regular holidays. The obligation of the employees is that they use the time to learn something new that interests them and that they can teach or share with the company.

They figured out how to manage their clients’ needs and expectations through the “gap month” and have been doing it successfully for about five years now. This summer, learning something new may be a bit more challenging, but they’ve long been set up to keep their people healthy and happy.

We’re living through a grand and terrible experiment, and there’s never been a better or more necessary time to find new ways of doing things. Even in a normal year, vacation days can gather dust, but like FCB West and the design company in Seattle, you can put positive, new practices into place that will find their way into future summers. This is your chance to make sure people feel good about trading their computer screen for sunscreen forever.


Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).

Swim is offering free small group Zoom sessions for leaders looking for ideas and support. Contact nancy@swimprogram.ca for more information.

David Brown