Overworked Americans Don’t Take Vacation Days They’ve Earned

vacationA majority of Americans experience stress at work – from minor but ongoing frustration, to full-blown chronic anxiety. And that stress clearly has negative effects on health, including increased risk of heart disease, liver disease and gastrointestinal problems.

Still, although for years we’ve know that periodically disengaging from your routine helps counteract stress, the majority of Americans don’t their full amount of earned vacation days. A recent poll run by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds about half of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week don’t take all — or often most – of the vacation they’ve accrued.

And among respondents who actually do take vacations, a full third report that they do a sizable amount of work while on vacation, according to Robert Blendon, a professor and health policy analyst at Harvard who directed the survey. “So they’re taking their stress along with them wherever they go.”

Take the case of 27-year-old Julie Hagopian. She works in digital marketing for a large educational company in Alexandria, Va, and says she adores her job. But it takes up nearly 60 hours of her time per week, and includes loads of stress. The biggest problem, Hagopian says: There’s no “off switch.”

“I’m on call all the time — to moderate, create content, curate everything,” she says. “So, generally speaking, even when on vacation, I’m checking email and moderating social feeds.”

And the very idea of a classic 1-2 weeks of vacation — forget it, she says. That would mean dumping her workload on colleagues, who already have too much on their plates as well.

In place of that older model, she takes off just a few days here and there, even though she always stays connected online.

And for 33-year-old Adam Rowan, who lives in Dolores, Colo., staying “connected” isn’t really an issue, because he doesn’t take any vacation. Ever.

“It’s just not my thing,” he says with a chuckle, “which probably sounds strange. But I’d prefer to be at work, getting things done.”

Rowan has a job in information technology for a big outdoor retail company. Since many of his co-workers got their start in their early 20s, Rowan feels like he has a lot of catching up to do. So he skips the opportunity for vacation to keep learning more, he says — “just to get a foot in the game.”

In the NPR poll, 35% of people who work 50+ hours say they also skip vacations to get ahead at work. Like Hagopian, 42% feel there isn’t enough manpower to take up the slack in their absance. And many, like Hagopian and Rowan, explain that their companies don’t have sufficient staff with the same expertise who even COULD serve as their backup.

“If I leave and something breaks and somebody who doesn’t know how to fix it tries to fix it, it could get a lot worse,” Rowan says.

These individuals are not alone in being so tied down to their job. Today, Americans use far fewer vacation days than they did even a few decades ago, according to psychologist Matthew J. Grawitch of Saint Louis University, who studies stress in the workplace. As their research indicates, on average, Americans take 16.2 days of vacation a year, compared to almost three weeks of vacation in 2000.

That’s a troubling trend, since time off not only alleviated stress, but can be personally rejuvenating and make people more productive after they return to the job.

Comprehensive research shows that employee health and well-being improve even during short vacations. This has led health professionals and psychologists to encourage people to at least take shorter vacations throughout the year if they feel they’re unable to manage a full week or two at once.

At least some employers agree. Diane Domeyer, executive director of the staffing firm The Creative Group, recently polled over 400 advertising and marketing executives and notes that 39% believe their employees would be more productive if they got away for some R&R.

And employees need to remember to unplug when they do get away from the office. If you’re one of those people who’s constantly checking email even on vacation, Domeyer suggests you resist the temptation to answer email right away. A too-quick response sends the signal that you’re available to keep working, she says.

Instead consider using a “delayed delivery” function in your emailed responses, she suggests. That gets the note off your plate, but doesn’t send it until the day you get back from vacation.

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Emery Reddy