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Vacation Blues

Americans don’t take much vacation. In part, that’s because we’re not given very much of it. But even then, we rarely take it all. Marketing expert Mary Lou Quinlan, author of Time Off for Good Behavior, estimates that employees subsidize their corporations to the tune of some $1.2 billion dollars every year — that’s in vacation to which we’re entitled, but which we don’t take.

Americans don’t take much vacation. In part, that’s because we’re not given very much of it. But even then, we rarely take it all. Marketing expert Mary Lou Quinlan, author of Time Off for Good Behavior, estimates that employees subsidize their corporations to the tune of some $1.2 billion dollars every year — that’s in vacation to which we’re entitled, but which we don’t take.

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Why is that? What’s going on when, given vacation time that makes Europeans feel sorry for us, we don’t even take that small amount? Is it possible we all just love our jobs so much that we can’t tear ourselves away?

Of course not. I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with someone who wasn’t tired. Exhausted. Fried. We all know we need a break and we all want one. Even those of us who do, truly, love our jobs. In fact, I’m often struck that it is the people who do love their jobs who also take their vacations. It’s the ones who are miserable who stay tied to their desks.

One reason for this, of course, is that employees fear being away from the office. With layoffs still management’s strategic tool of choice, simply being in the know makes us feel we have some influence over events. At least we’ll be there to make our case. It’s an illusion of course, but a compelling one. Other employees feel that taking a vacation will be interpreted by their managers as a lack of commitment — and have a long-term cost in terms of promotion, juicy assignments, or even continued employment. I’m sure one reason everyone adores Thanksgiving is that it is the one time when everyone will be out of the office — so it’s safe to leave.

In their daily lives, many people work long hours because they don’t really want to go home. I’ve seen more than a few executives come into work on a Monday morning with palpable relief. “Thank god that’s over,” they say about their weekend. As Arlie Hochschild demonstrated in The Time Bind, many parents find that their work is simply more rewarding than their families. You can get praise, camaraderie, feedback, and money in your job. At home, you get demands and expenses. The job, frankly, is easier.

I think the reluctance to take vacation is an extension of this. We don’t take vacations because we are afraid of what they may show us, about ourselves and our careers. I remember when a good friend of mine came back from trip in Greece. She told me what a wonderful time she’d had, what great little restaurants she’d found. It all sounded pretty good. “But then,” she said, “I went back into work and I just sat there the whole day wishing I wasn’t there.”

Her vacation had done exactly what vacations are supposed to do: given her enough time to rest and reflect. And she didn’t like what she saw. This is what is so frightening about vacations, and I think it may be one reason why we don’t take them. They give us time to think.

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Time to think is scary because we get out of the habit of doing it. High performers demonstrate a bias for action and that action is addictive. We’d rather be doing than thinking. But thinking is what we need to do.

Careers require courage. Even — or especially — when reflection is frightening, we need time out to see where we are and where we are going. Do you sit on the beach and come up with dozens of new ideas for work — or do you fantasize about being able to storm out? Do you find yourself noticing new trends and ideas that relate to your job — or are you desperate to immerse yourself in books that take you far, far away? Do you use vacation to develop a new skill or to seek out new experiences — or are you so burned out that all you want to do is sleep? All of these things will tell you whether you’re in a great job or whether you’re stuck. Yes, it can be pretty scary.

Returning to work after a vacation is always a shock. It’s not just that you have to get up early, don office clothes and resume a commute. It’s that going back tell us whether we are in the right place or not. That’s why people happy in their work keep taking vacations: they aren’t afraid of re-entry. For others though, it can be a real wake up call.

Don’t duck it. If coming back to work feels that bad, pay attention. What is it about your job that’s so discomfiting? Is it the work — or the people — or the place? Does the career need tweaking or an overhaul? Are you proud of the person you are at work — or does that persona suddenly seem wholly incompatible with the person you could be on vacation?

When my friend returned from Greece, she was deeply shocked to discover just how much she hated her job. She thought she had two choices: Either she had to change jobs, or she needed never to go away again. The shock of re-entry was simply too great. Fortunately, she made the bolder choice. She left the world of corporate finance and joined a small accounting practice. To others, it may not have looked like an earth-shattering transition, but she later told me she thought it saved her life.

She still takes vacations. Because, she says, she isn’t afraid of them any more.

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