Vacations are restorative. A periodic break from jobs and the stresses of everyday routines allows time for reflection, relaxation and a change of perspective. Vacations offer opportunities to strengthen bonds with family and friends and have been shown to enhance work productivity.
The Harvard Business Review reported that people who take vacations tend to have a better chance of getting raises or promotions than those who leave paid vacation days on the table. As I’ve said on Next Avenue, even retirees need vacations.
Yet despite these benefits, Americans appear to be skittish about taking time off from work — even paid vacations.
A recent survey by the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) revealed that 40 percent of employees don’t use all their accrued vacation time, leaving behind more than three unused days per person per year, totaling 430 million days of unused paid vacation annually. (Bear in mind that a substantial segment of the population is far worse off, not getting any paid vacations.)
The Workaholic Culture
Not taking a paid vacation is akin to stashing an endorsed check in a drawer and leaving it there. So why would so many workers leave this earned benefit on the table?
Not taking a paid vacation is akin to stashing an endorsed check in a drawer and leaving it there.
Commenting on the study, Roger Dow, president and CEO of USTA, said we’re becoming a nation of “work martyrs” who are happy to wear our extreme “busyness” as a badge of honor.
That isn’t a wholly new phenomenon: The term “workaholic” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1947.
But advances in technology over the past decade or two have blurred — and in some instances totally obliterated — the boundaries between work and home, and between work and vacation.
A substantial proportion of the workforce is tethered to smartphones, laptops and wearable technology that enable them to work around the clock. In fact, the Pew Research Center estimates that 44 percent of cellphone owners keep their devices nearby at night so they don’t miss calls or urgent messages while they’re asleep.
Similar problems tend to plague the growing army of “location-independent workers” (sometimes called digital nomads) who work from wherever they happen to be.
Some say that America’s time-off policies reflect the way our culture consistently devalues the importance of vacations. A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research dubbed America the “No-Vacation Nation” because of its status as the only advanced nation that doesn’t guarantee its workers paid vacations.
Writing for Forbes, Susan Adams says, “The fact that American vacation time is not enshrined in law has an effect on Americans’ propensity to [not] take the time they’re due.”
The USTA survey, called Project: Time Off, found that 40 percent of the survey respondents who left vacation time on the books did so because they worried about being overwhelmed with responsibilities when they returned; 35 percent said they were unable to take vacations because no one else could assume their responsibilities at the office.
About 1 in 3 workers said they couldn’t afford to use their time off and 22 percent said they didn’t want to be viewed as “replaceable.”
Recent research from Alamo Rent a Car identified other stressors that hold people back. The survey of more than 1,000 American adults found that 46 percent feel apprehensive and nervous about spending too much money on family vacations and 26 percent worry about the burden of packing.
Reversing the Anti-Vacation Mindset
How can these psychological barriers be addressed or minimized?
Clearly, a change of mindset requires efforts on the part of workers and managers. Employees need to schedule and structure their time off (in collaboration with co-workers and supervisors) so they can leave their jobs without angst and don’t have to worry about putting out fires when they return.
A few suggestions for workers:
- Don’t take on new projects when you’re about to embark on vacation.
- Don’t fill up your calendar with appointments or schedule meetings immediately after your return.
- Spell out the conditions under which you should or shouldn’t be contacted while you’re away and specify how you want to be reached (e.g., via email, text, etc.).
- If going technology-free makes you anxious, don’t go cold turkey. But do limit your level of engagement and the number of times each day you check your smartphone or laptop.
- If you truly can’t take an extended vacation because of work responsibilities, arrange for multiple shorter getaways (e.g., long weekends).
- Find ways to minimize the cost of vacations so you don’t overspend and feel guilty afterwards. For example, a “staycation” close to home can offer some of the same benefits as a trip to an exotic location. An all-inclusive stay can put a cap on unexpected costs. The disruptive economy (such as rental sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO and platforms offering meals with locals) and off-season vacations can whittle down the costs of travel considerably.
Simultaneously, managers and business owners need to recognize, acknowledge and promote the organizational payoffs of paid vacations.
Paid vacations foster a happier, more productive and loyal workforce. Employers can be powerful role models and set an example by using all their own paid vacation days.