THE BLOG
01/18/2016 09:32 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2017

Struggling to Ask for Vacation? Volunteering is Your Golden Ticket

People don't take enough vacation, research proves it. New research also shows that it"s negatively affecting them and their employers. As 2015 comes to a close, 40 percent of Americans left half (on average) of their vacations days on the table. In doing so, they missed out on time to rejuvenate, refresh, and relax.

This phenomena of employees not taking enough vacation is not new, but it is getting worse. As studies have shown, employees worry that taking "too much" vacation will affect their reputation, create a pile of work when they return, and cause projects to fail in their absence.

But, in the long run, not using vacation is even more harmful to you, your career, your company, your relationships, and your health.

Unused Vacation is Bad for Employees AND Employers

What most people and managers don't know is that vacation has short AND long-term benefits to employees, their teams, and their employers. In the short-term, taking vacation is good for overall productivity, and in the long-term, employees will return more productive and engaged. Travel, a common use of vacation days, enables people to see other people and places, which, according to INSEAD, "makes us more flexible, creative, and complex thinkers".

In addition, your vacation provides growth opportunities for your teammates. In your absence, team members will have to learn new tasks and increase their exposure, setting the foundation for innovative thinking, process improvements, and opportunities to create efficiencies or other improvement areas. One group, Project: Time Off, has released study after study showing the power of taking your vacation days.

Why Don't People Use Their Vacation?

It almost all boils down to money. People either think that:

  1. Taking time away might look bad and hurt their chance for a bonus, raise, and/or promotion
  2. Taking vacation is usually expensive, and will result in too many expenses

But what if vacation didn't hurt your personal bank account? What if your vacation actually helped your career trajectory instead of slowing it down? Doing good for the world by volunteering your skills overseas -- going Experteering -- might be your golden ticket.

Volunteering Can Help You Use All Your Vacation Days in 2016
(without breaking your bank)

In 2016, in hopes of getting more employees to take vacation, we'll see more companies getting creative in the ways they encourage their employees to take vacation. In fact, most companies AND managers WANT their employees to take vacation. Some companies even pay their employees a bonus to take their days off.

As another example, a corporate program that we support at Microsoft, MySkills4Afrika, encourages employees to use their vacation time to volunteer in Africa. If they are selected for the program, Microsoft covers their travel costs. Beyond tapping into the rejuvenating effects of travel and vacation, research shows that volunteering overseas helps develop critical leadership skills like innovation, collaboration, communication, and grit. And Microsoft isn't alone. Over 30 companies offer international skills-based volunteering programs.

But if your company doesn't have a formal vacation-incentive program, like a social sabbatical, paid vacation, or international volunteering program, you can still negotiate for your own using one (or more) of the following five ideas to get your company to pay for your travel while you use your vacation days:

1. Use Vacation to Grow as a Leader

Corporate investment in leadership development is growing over 15 percent per year. Many leadership development programs can cost tens of thousands of dollars and require up to 8 weeks out of the office in a calendar year. Despite the cost, companies are known to sponsor these initiatives. Other companies will also pay for online courses, certifications, grant time off for graduate degrees, and/or sponsor coaching sessions. These are all valuable learning opportunities, but nothing instills learning like experience. Research on the benefits of volunteering programs show leadership skill development as a key outcome. As such, you can work with your leadership development team to co-invest in sending you on an Experteering trip. You'll use your vacation days if they cover your travel.

2. Go Volunteering Instead of Going to That (Boring) Conference

Conferences are useful for networking, learning industry news, and finding business development opportunities, but they are also known for being expensive as they are inefficient. However, companies are used to sponsoring conferences.

You can strike a deal with your manager to cover the cost of your Experteering trip instead of sending you to that conference you're dreading. Try to strike a deal where you use your vacation days to make a positive impact and grow as a leader, and your manager can provide the budget to enable you to get overseas.

3. Ask For Volunteering Time and Budget As Part of Your Promotion

If you're up for a promotion or a new job in 2016, try negotiating for 1 day per month to volunteer on the company's time. The extra time you spend out of the office volunteering will expose you to stretch experiences and help you grow as a leader, faster. You can then add that volunteer time on top of your vacation to make it overseas to have a truly immersive Experteering trip. If you're really good at negotiating, maybe you can include a travel stipend as part of your package, too.

4. Turn Your Performance Bonus Into a World-Positive Volunteer Trip

It's common practice to give top performers thousands of dollars in bonuses, all-expenses paid trips to tropical locations, and/or incentive prizes upon reaching goals. If you are in a position that might earn a bonus, try to negotiate in advance for budget that will be used in sending you overseas to go Experteering. As with the situations above, you can use your vacation days to justify time away, and instead of throwing money at an awkward party or on hangover-inducing booze, your company will instead benefit by knowing that their investment in you is also making the world a better place.

5. Ask for Budget to Do Field Research

Many companies spend tens of thousands of dollars on field research and user experience studies. Product teams prize information from the field, and are willing to pay for it. If nonprofits, schools, community groups, schools, small businesses, and/or startups happen to be end users of your company's product(s), then volunteering your time with them will help accelerate their growth while giving you the opportunity to record ways to improve your product(s) based on actual observation.

In fact, skills-based volunteering is well documented to foster innovation. If you are willing to use your vacation days to go Experteering, than ask your product teams and/or research teams to sponsor your travel overseas. In exchange for that budget, you'll return with valuable insights from the field, as well as powerful stories from empowering your end users. This article in SSIR shows how.


Taking time away from the office can be hard. Asking for it can be even harder. But the case for the benefits of volunteering overseas is increasingly compelling.

And what do you have to lose -- have you ever heard of someone getting fired asking for time to make the world a better place?