Positive work year practices promote wellness and rejuvenation

Encouraging and promoting not working is an important step a district can take to support the social, emotional and mental health of its administrative leadership.

By Kevin Skelly and Kirk Black | Leadership Magazine, January-February 2018

A school or district administrator’s job is a jealous lover – it constantly craves more of our energy; it relentlessly demands our thoughts, and whether we like it or not, there always seems to be more to do to support students and staff.

Keeping perspective is always difficult, and when we are out of kilter, it’s particularly difficult to make wise decisions. We need to be at our best to do our best for the students, families and staff we serve.

Most districts in the state have job descriptions that set specific expectations around the number of days an administrator works and then, after subtracting holidays, derive the number of vacation days the employee receives. This practice has the potential to conflict with other efforts one might devise to promote healthy work/life balances among district leaders because in this model people have an incentive to “store” days in exchange for money at retirement.

Instead, we believe that having a specific number of work and non-work days for each position and no accrued vacation – what is known as a positive work year – is far superior for multiple reasons, and in no small part because it promotes the wellness of the district’s leadership team in a way that sets the example for others.

Loving the work we do is a good thing, but, like every relationship, our love affair with our work must be healthy. While there’s no panacea for the challenge of work-life balance, we believe that sometimes encouraging and promoting not working is an important step a district can take to support the social, emotional and mental health of its administrative leadership.

We are convinced that positive work year calendars promote employee health and are sound personnel management practice.

The value of vacations in creating a healthy work-life balance

We educational leaders, like everyone else, need recharging and rejuvenating. Our positions entail punishing hours, including multiple night meetings and weekend commitments. The school year rushes by. Others look to us for strength and a giving spirit no matter the circumstances. Every parent group and school activity “expects” to see administrators at their meeting, activity or contest.

We often feel that the highest compliment we can hear is “she’s everywhere” or “he’s always at school.” And while we can clearly see the damage long hours take on other staff, it’s easy to be blind to the toll our work takes on ourselves and the relationships most important to us. 

In our district, when we are at our best, we unequivocally promote the value of moving away from the work, relaxing, rejuvenating, and returning with a renewed commitment to the mission of the organization. We tell those we supervise that taking breaks to recharge batteries is sometimes just as important for an employee’s success as the long hours that inevitably come with their jobs.

While we would like principals and other administrators on duty when school is in session, we also support reasonable use of non-work days during school that enrich and enhance parts of administrators’ lives outside work.

We have recently adopted a similar positive work year schedule for confidential employees and pushed other employee groups to have positive work years for the same reason. And, while it sometimes feels heartless to refuse extra pay for more days worked, we almost always say “no” at every juncture.

But it’s more than just recharging and rejuvenation. By not working we can gain the creativity that comes from a healthy emotional distance from the challenges of a school year. New approaches to enduring challenges can flower when we overthrow the tyranny of the urgent. At a time when our students seem busier and more stressed than ever, we leaders can model the health benefits of down time.

In sum, we honor the often Herculean efforts of our fabulous team, and then urge them to go away and regain their strength and a balanced sense of self.

The trouble with counting vacation days

In theory, a traditional “work schedule with vacation days” policy matches a positive work year strategy when employees exhaust their vacation balances at the end of every year. The trouble starts in the rare instance when district leadership would want to grant permission for employees to carry over days to the next year becomes the widespread practice of allowing district administrators to accrue unused vacation days.

Not taking all of one’s vacation days annually creates something akin to another retirement savings account. Over one’s career, employees can accumulate a bank of unused vacation days that can be cashed in when one retires or moves on. The bank’s value, and corresponding unfunded liability of the district, grows much faster than district revenues as an employee’s pay increases with time in the district and any move up the organizational ladder.

Unchecked, this amount can equal or surpass a year’s worth of salary, and its existence represents a sizeable, and often growing unfunded liability on a district’s financial books.

There are also perverse incentives under this traditional scheme. Employees at all levels have a strong incentive to underreport their vacation days to build their vacation balance. Allowing vacation balances to grow reinforces this practice. Upper management employees with little or no supervisor oversight are often the most difficult to monitor in this regard and, sadly, some of the most egregious abusers when a district’s poor management comes to light.

Every year it seems there is an investigatory story where districts are accused of mismanaging vacation day balances. Or there is an exposé of a retiree whose last year included a big vacation day payout that is painted in the worst light. This damages confidence in K-12 education in our state.

Abuse of vacation balances is preventable by using a positive work year. Yes, employees can work more days. But in our district, they are not going to get paid for this time unless they have pre-approved days with specific extraordinary tasks to perform approved by the board on the personnel report.

Conclusion: Improved employee health that is free (or better than free)

Districts offer health insurance to employees and cover much or even all of the cost of premiums. Many of us provide extensive employee wellness programs. Both of these support employee health and wellness, but come at substantial costs.

Moving from vacation days, that may or may not be used, to a positive work year guarantees employees will not work more than their contracted days. It is a cost-free strategy to encourage a productive work-life balance. The positive work year calendar ensures that employees will take time to relax away from work, focus their energies elsewhere, engage with family and friends, and come back to work with renewed vigor and appreciation.

What’s not to love about that?

Kevin Skelly (kskelly@smuhsd.org) is superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District. Kirk Black (kblack@ smuhsd.org) is a deputy superintendent of the district. They can be reached at (650) 558-2200.

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