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3 Powerful Reasons to Take Time Off to Support Health, Wellbeing, and Professional Success

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Even in our halcyon working lives before COVID-19, more than half of Americans—55 percent—ended 2019 with paid vacation days that went unused. While this may be hard to fathom, it’s nothing new. Things have been trending this way for nearly a decade. But why? Why would workers essentially offer up 768 million days a year of free work to their employers? 

People who routinely forfeit their vacation days at year end do so for any number of reasons. On one end of the spectrum, there’s fear: I’ll lose my job. My workload will pile up, and I’ll fall behind. I won’t be seen as “serious.” In 2018, a U.S. Travel survey of 4,000 Americans’ vacation habits found that workers feared appearing replaceable and less dedicated, in addition to believing that they had too much work to do to take time off.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s dedication mixed with desire. Employees may have a strong commitment to their work product, their teammates, and their clients along with the conviction that personal sacrifice and long hours are a prerequisite for promotion. 

In the middle of these two extremes of fear and desire fall the so-called “work martyrs,” employees who have consciously or unconsciously honed their own “busyness” to a fine degree because they feel they are truly the only ones who can do the job. Work martyrs put the job first, vacation last, even as they complain about how overworked and burdened they feel in the process. Because work martyrs often equate productivity with self-worth, time out for vacation falls to the bottom of the stack.

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There is no reason to believe this temptation to skip vacation will reverse any time soon. COVID-19 has only made our relationship to time off more complicated, narrowing our options for what to do in our free time, while increasing the difficulty of doing them. Parents, especially, whose number of work hours are reduced by the need to balance work and home life, including home schooling, feel they’re already asking coworkers to cover for them. The idea of taking a vacation on top of that feels selfish and has even sparked cultural wars in the workplace between parents whose companies are helpfully offering COVID-specific “flex time” benefits, and non-parents, who feel they’re being “used” and punished for not having kids.  

On top of all that, when you think about how much planning goes into a run to the grocery store during the pandemic, the idea of planning—let alone enjoying—an entire vacation, with all its moving parts, is uninviting at best. While all the previous years’ reasons for skipping vacation remain, the global pandemic has added further constraints that may feel just plain insurmountable to the person trying to figure out if taking a vacation this winter is worth it.

That said, according to researchers, here are three reasons why you still need to take time off, even if the best you can do is a staycation.

1. People who take their vacation time are healthier. 

Skipping vacation is choosing a lifestyle of stress, even though you’ve convinced yourself it’s for all the right reasons. Researchers studying the work habits of more than 600,000 people in the U.S., UK, and Australia, concluded that employees who put in 35 to 40 hours a week were 33 percent less likely to suffer stroke and had a 13 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who put in more than 55 hours a week. In addition, the more you work, the more you tamper with your ability to relax when you need to. People who do take their vacations are shown to sleep better, eat better, and stick to a regular fitness routine. In the end, this adds up to living longer with a higher quality of life.

2. People who take their vacation time are measurably more successful at work. 

In calculating the schedules that would yield both productivity and efficiency for factory workers, economists concluded that working more than 48 hours a week caused a steep fall-off in productivity. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that your work martyrdom—of giving and giving and giving—will pay off down the road with raises and promotions. But the data does not support that. According to the Harvard Business Review, employees who took more than 10 of their vacation days a year had a 64.5 percent chance of receiving a bonus or a raise over a three-year period, while employees who took fewer than 10 vacation days a year had only a 34.6 percent likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus. Finally, those who take 11 or more vacation days a year are more than 30 percent more likely to receive a raise. Who knew that taking the vacation time you’re entitled to would turn out to be a formula for success?

3. People who take their vacation time experience greater levels of wellbeing. 

According to neuroscientists, we have to have downtime so that our bodies can restore themselves. People who take their vacation time to recharge feel calmer and experience more clarity and peace of mind. This sets in motion an upward spiral of creativity, broadening our view of available options. It gives us more to work with. Wellbeing research shows evidence that the act of anticipation—just having a vacation to look forward to—can significantly lift your spirits. In a study of 974 vacationers from the Netherlands, vacationers found that just planning their vacation before they went made them happier. The same study found that thinking about an upcoming trip beforeit takes place positively impacts your happiness even more than a post-vacation attitude change.

This year of COVID-19 has introduced its own built-in stressors that have nothing to do with your job. You cannot possibly recharge on a steady calendar of back-to-back Zoom calls, interspersed with drop-ins by the kids to clarify an online classroom assignment, and peppered with all those phone calls to the outside world—checking in on your mom who lives alone across town, arranging home repairs, dealing with slow internet, or lining up curbside food delivery. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that there’s more to life than work, work, work. And while the pandemice has altered so many aspects of our everyday lives, the one thing you do control is not only how to spend your free time, it’s allowing yourself to take that time in the first place.

Looking for more reasons why vacation time is important? Check out 4 Forward-Thinking Reasons Companies Should Encourage Employee Vacation.

About The Author
Karen Warner Schueler

Karen Warner Schueler, MAPP, is an executive coach and president of Tangible Group. She is also author of The Sudden Caregiver: A Roadmap for Resilient Caregiving.