Why Not Using All Of Your Vacation Time Is Hazardous To Your Health

Americans still only take about half their paid time off. Not taking all your vacation days hurts your brain function and poses other serious health risks.

Why Not Using All Of Your Vacation Time Is Hazardous To Your Health
[Image: Flickr user Micky**]

It sounds like a no-brainer: If someone paid you to take time off to kick back and relax, would you say “no, thanks”?


Based on a new Glassdoor survey, the average U.S. employee only takes half (51%) of their eligible paid time off (the average paid time off is 10 days for full-time professionals according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). That’s an increase from 2008 when the average time left not taken was three days.

What’s more, when they do pry themselves from their jobs to enjoy a getaway, three in five (61%) admit they still check work email.

We get it. Vacations can be tough on the wallet. One in 10 surveyed by Glassdoor said they used time off to look for another job. Others are afraid to lose their job or are gunning for a raise or promotion.

It’s also hard when you know you’re going to get sucked back in to the office, even while your toes are stuck in the sand. Nearly a quarter (24%) of employees on vacation are contacted by a coworker, and 20% were contacted by their boss about a work-related matter, according to the Glassdoor study.

The reality is, taking all your paid time off is good for your health and productivity. Science says so.

It Boosts Your Overall Health and Well-Being

Jessica de Bloom, a researcher from Radboud University in the Netherlands published some findings on longer vacations. Basically, workers who took two weeks or more off to relax and have fun felt great during their time away, but the boost dissipated after returning to work. Disregard these benefits at your own risk, de Bloom told NPR. “It would be a bit like asking, ‘Why do we sleep despite the fact that we get tired again?'” We know that sleep is integral to maintaining our brain‘s physiological function. The experiences had while on vacation, though, have longer lasting effects. And viewing past experiences in a positive light can also affect your current state of happiness.


It Makes Your Heart Happier

Besides the obvious injection of happiness that comes from spending time doing something you love, the renowned Framingham Heart Study found that vacations actually reduce the risk of heart disease. Men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30% more likely to have heart attacks. Before you think about banking your time off, know that the study found that skipping for just one year could increase your risk of heart disease.

You Need to Play or You’ll Die

For many of us, time off means time to play–in water, snow, woods, or desert. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play in California, says active play is necessary to build our brains into responsive, flexible, skilled and more social instruments. All good traits on the job.

Unfortunately, as the workplace rewards the most driven, play time is seen as unproductive or lazy. Scientists discovered that when young rats are deprived of play, their brains don’t develop properly and their cortisol–our stress hormone–stays so high, the rats die.

Vacations Build Resilience

We’d all like to have more self-control and grit –critical traits that predict success in work and life. To build the kind of mindset that allows you to adapt and thrive, it’s important to learn how to relax. If you don’t Deborah Mulhern says, you won’t be able to in the future. The clinical psychologist told ABC News:

Without time and opportunity to do this, the neural connections that produce feelings of calm and peacefulness become weaker, making it actually more difficult to shift into less-stressed modes. What neuroscience is showing is that we require down time in order for our bodies to go through the process of restoration. It is only when we are safe from external stresses that our bodies can relax enough to activate restoration.

If you’re still waffling, here’s a wealth of advice on how to step away from the job and take a restorative break. Your boss will thank you.

Related: Unlimited Vacation Doesn’t Create Slackers, It Ensures Productivity


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.