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Happy Holiday: More Executives Are Taking Vacation

Completely unplugging from the office is still a challenge, although about 50 percent of CFOs in a recent survey said they didn't check in while checked out.

Is corporate America starting to relax about relaxation?

At least one recent survey suggests that with the improving economy, more people are taking vacations than in recent years. They’re also turning off their phones—at least for their co-workers.

About half of chief financial officers said this summer that they didn’t check in with the office at all while on vacation, up from just a quarter of CFOs who said two years ago they didn’t check in with work, according to a July survey by Robert Half Management Resources in Menlo Park, California. In 2005, just 21 percent of CFOs surveyed said they didn’t check in at all while on vacation. The recent survey included responses from 1,400 CFOs.

“It may indicate that executives have a stronger level of confidence in their teams and processes, and as a result feel more comfortable skipping regular check-ins,” says Paul McDonald, a senior executive at Robert Half.

Still, most workers don’t use all their allotted vacation time, another survey found, and executive coaches say there is a lingering reluctance at the top to completely unplug for even a long weekend—setting a tone of all work and no play across an organization.

Executive coach David Brookmire says he still sees hesitancy for the C-suite to take time off at all, even with periodic check-ins.

“Even getting leaders to take a four-day weekend is a big deal,” says Brookmire, founder of Corporate Performance Strategies in Roswell, Georgia. “Two weeks off I think is unheard of.”

He says that part of the reason is the mountain of work waiting upon return. “It’s pretty painful coming back,” Brookmire says, adding that some of his clients will have more than 2,000 emails to respond to after just a few days of being offline.

Indeed, some 27 percent of CFOs in the Robert Half survey said they planned to touch base several times per week when on vacation.

Americans are notorious for their lack of vacation. One in four U.S. workers don’t get any paid holidays or vacation, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. And many Americans who get paid time off don’t take the time allotted to them.

In America’s 10 largest cities, only workers in Boston and Philadelphia reported using all of their annual vacation time during the past five years, according to a June poll conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of destination club Inspirato. Workers got 17.6 to 22.1 days of vacation per year, the survey of 2,534 adults found.

Workers in Washington were most likely to use their vacation time from 2008 to 2012, with 73 percent of those surveyed in the nation’s capital taking paid time off every year over that period. Seventy percent of workers in San Francisco went on vacation during each of those years. But in Chicago, just 55 percent of those surveyed used their vacation every year during the past five years.

That’s not to say that workers don’t care about vacations. The same survey found that half of all workers would sacrifice a workplace benefit such as a bonus, promotion or private office for more vacation.

Numerous studies have linked time off from work to better health and improved productivity, motivation and creativity. The Framingham Heart Study, which follows generations of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, found that taking regular vacations lowers the risk of heart attack for men by about a third and for women by half.

Brookmire says the pressure to meet quarterly financial goals is relentless among executives today. And technology is a double-edge sword—while it allows people to work remotely, it can result in an inability to fully decompress.

He counsels executives to take baby steps toward taking time off. For instance, he suggests working four-day weeks for one month, with periodic email checks allowed on that one day off per week.

“We start incrementally, and then can maybe work up to a week off at a time,” he says.

One firm is taking a different approach. Bart Lorang, co-founder and CEO of FullContact, a Denver-based technology company, announced in July that he would offer all employees a $7,500 bonus each year if they go on vacation. Not only that, but they have to disconnect and they can’t work while on holiday.

Setting the tone is important, Brookmire added. “If you want to create a culture where work-life balance is important, you have to role-model it,” he said.

Rebecca Vesely is a writer based in San Francisco. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.