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Don’t throw away your vacation days

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Let’s play pretend for a minute. Pretend that you’re craving a pizza – a hot, cheesy 18” pizza with your favorite toppings and the perfect sauce and crust. You can’t wait to share it with friends and family. You start to salivate when you smell the aroma of the pizza as it arrives at your house. You pull a perfectly warmed slice out of the box – and then throw the rest of the pizza into the trash. Or, better yet, you don’t even eat one slice. Instead, you leave the pizza in the open box on your kitchen table for the next year, and you just look at it each time you see it. Sometimes, you complain that you didn’t eat it or you tell friends that as much as you like pizza, you typically just let it go to waste.

Nobody would do that, right? Well, more than half of Americans do something similar every year, but with something much more valuable than pizza: their earned vacation. 

According to a business report conducted by CNBC, the majority of Americans with earned or accrued time off fail to use half of their vacation days. And three-quarters of American who self-identify as highly engaged at work leave more than 60% of their banked vacation days on the table (with the pizza).

In 2017, US workers left 705 million vacation days unused. And, in 2020, a pandemic year, when reported incidents of stress increased, Americans left a staggering 812 million vacation days unused.

With increasing reports of mental health challenges in the workplace including depression, anxiety, and insomnia and a national crisis around stroke, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes the US surgeon general lists work-related stress as one of the key indicators or predictors for American workers who have these conditions. Yet, Americans routinely continue to work rather than rest. 

Business owners and companies large and small know that a refreshed and enthusiastic workforce yields greater profits, reduces sick days, and decreases employee performance interventions, but workers continue to waste earned vacation days. Why?

The answer is as simple as it is stark. According to Harvard Business Review, employees are more likely to continue to work even if they’re suffering on-the-job burnout in order to avoid the potential appearance of “slacking”. Simply put, Americans keep coming to work out of fear. The result of this behavior is that the average team is suffering some sort of burnout or low motivation brought on by chronic high levels of stress at work, which cost companies hidden or vampire losses that aren’t easily quantified. Burnout is contagious, can consume leaders, team players, and solid performers.

During the pandemic, even fewer people are taking vacation, and it’s not necessarily because they haven’t been able to travel or visit relatives. It’s because it might look bad to others to take time off from a work-from-home job to stay home. Again, fear is the consistent motivator, and it has lasting negative effects.

Avoid the fear trap

What can you do about it? Work performance coaches recommend a three-step process:

  1. Recognize that as an individual it is tough to assess your performance in real time, especially under rising or perceived pressures. Make the assumption that spending time to recharge is a valuable investment into your overall health and performance.
  2. Accept the fact that “it’s never a great time to take a vacation.” Plan your vacation in advance, and truly disconnect.
  3. Fear can be a good short-term motivator, but left in place for any length of time, long-term systemic impacts, all of which are negative, become the norm.

And if you’re an employer, encourage your employees to take time off. Some companies are even requiring periodic “wellness days” once per quarter where they give employees a paid day off. Happy, well rested employees are better employees. They report higher satisfaction at work, generate higher performance, and have lower overall stress.

So the next time you’re tempted to work instead of take a vacation, remember that time off is every bit as important as time “on.” Even a day off here or there can make a big difference to your sense of well-being, your health, and your company’s bottom line. 

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