Americans today are taking less vacation time than ever before. According to a recent Oxford Economics study commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, American workers take off only 16 days a year, compared with an average of more than 20 as recently as 2000. In 2013, the U.S. workforce used less vacation time than at any point in the past four decades, walking away from a total of roughly $52.4 billion in paid benefits and 169 million days of paid time off—in effect, the researchers write, "providing free labor for their employers at an average of $504 per employee."
To put it bluntly, what are we thinking? Why aren't we using our well-earned vacation time?
These are some of the more common excuses:
- "I simply can't take time away from work. I have too much to do!"
- "If I take vacation, my manager will think that I'm not dedicated to my job, and I won't get promoted."
- "I'd feel guilty! Being busy and working is just who I am and what I do."
For one thing, when being busy at work plays too big a role into our personal identity and self-worth, something's wrong. If that's a main reason you can't find time for vacation, chances are you're operating from a place of fear. It's as though we're worried we won't measure up if we step away from the daily grind. If you hesitate to use the vacation time your company offers you, it's time to ask yourself a few tough questions and make a change.
Is it your ability to complete your work? Are you worried the quality your work will suffer if you take a break? Do you fear you'll harm your relationship with your manager and colleagues? There are usually some underlying insecurities preventing us from taking the vacations we're owed. But the truth is you deserve it. Don’t let a lack of faith in your professional abilities prevent you from living your life.
It's likely you're projecting some insecurities onto your manager. Has she really indicated it isn't a wise choice to take time off? Which are your company’s expectations and which are your own? Ask what it costs you personally and professionally when you don't give yourself the opportunity to recharge. Think not just about your performance in the office but about your relationships and your physical, emotional, and spiritual health as well.
If you're really hesitant to block out a full week to go off the grid, don't. Start small instead. Schedule four hours off one afternoon and explore your city, go to a play or movie, or just read a book. Incremental steps can help chip away at your anxiety about using that vacation time, and sometimes even a few hours off can revitalize you.
Trying to take a vacation just a few weeks from now can be tough—you're already thinking about which projects will be moving into what stages by that time. Instead, schedule next year's vacation right now. Yes, schedule all of the vacation you want to take in 2016 right now. Open your calendar and block all of the time you will take off. This includes mini-vacations like a Friday afternoon spent on the golf course. By scheduling your vacation now you ensure that there is dedicated time for your rest and rejuvenation.
If you need need some extra encouragement, check out The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, a book that maps the relationship between positive psychology and productivity. Achor cites research suggesting that companies with happier workers are simply better businesses on a range of measures. Harvard Business Review recently detailed how "the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain." To be truly engaged at work, your brain needs periodic breaks to gain a fresh perspective and renew your energy.
Plenty of companies are already taking note. At Lending Tree, there's no paid time-off policy at all. Employees can take as many days off as they want. I spoke recently with the company's director of human resources Michelle Lind, who told me, "We want our employees to be engaged in the business, involved with their job and to achieve their goals. As a result, we do not want to put barriers and fences around their time. If you need a day off, we want you to take it." That approach nips in the bud most of the anxieties that can hold employees back from taking time off. In effect, Lending Tree trusts them to make decisions that are in their personal and professional best interest.
Bigger companies, including Expedia and Netflix, have also recently revised their vacation and parental leave policies, showing that the long-term, bottom-line benefits to employees are getting more recognition.
In the meantime, don't wait for your own company to rethink its policies. Take matters into your own hands and take that vacation. If you don't, you risk undermining your performance and, ultimately, your career. Remember: Life is finite; work is infinite. Go take a vacation.