Why you may not be taking your vacation time – and why you should

By David Gee

Road trips. Resorts. Lazy days by the lake. Time away. A chance to unplug and unwind. That’s what vacations are for. But you may – or may not – be surprised to find lots of people don’t take the vacation time that is coming to them. Are you among them?

Research from software company Kimble Applications shows nearly half of American workers don’t take all of their accrued annual vacation time and 21% leave more than five vacation days on the table.

According to their data, workload-related stress is the number one reason people don’t take their paid time off; too many projects or deadlines. Others say they fear taking time off only to return to “too much work.” And a significant number of those surveyed say they feel not taking the time off coming to them will reflect favorably on them at review time.

Compare and contrast this to other countries around the world. Brazil, Australia and most countries in Europe offer four weeks paid leave per 12 months of employment.

According to the Gov.uk, in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, employees are entitled to 5.6 weeks (about 28 days) of annual holiday leave. And the majority take them.

“I am an advocate of giving people a reasonable vacation entitlement and then encouraging them to take it,” says Mark Robinson, co-founder of the U.K.-based Kimble Applications. “My experience is that businesses work best if there is clarity about this and people feel confident about planning their vacation time. That is better for the individuals and it allows the business to forecast and budget better too.”

Interestingly people aren’t taking their time off even at companies with so-called “unlimited” vacation policies.

“One of the interesting side effects of unlimited vacation policies is that employees who have it often take too little vacation, instead of too much,” says Brie Weiler Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs, in an article in Forbes. “So, some companies have actually started creating minimum vacation days to encourage employees to take more time away from work.”

I recently heard an NPR interview with an employee of a tech company in Silicon Valley. He loves to travel and looked forward to being able to do lots of it while employed full-time at a company offering unlimited vacation. The reality though, he soon realized, is he is actually taking less time off than when he worked at companies with more defined and rigid vacation policies.

He said there is lots of “peer pressure among my co-workers not to take time off and that seeing how long you can go without taking a vacation at all is seen as a badge of honor.”

This doesn’t surprise Inc.com contributing editor Geoffrey James who calls unlimited paid vacation the “scam of the century,” and says if widely adopted, it could herald the demise of the paid vacation.

“While you might daydream about taking a month off, chances are you won’t have the chutzpah to actually do so. On the contrary, you’ll quickly realize that you’ll earn management’s displeasure if you take any vacation at all, because then you’re not being a team-player, which is the exact same logic behind management’s demand for a 100-hour work week.”

So why take a vacation? What are you missing out on if you don’t?

The famous Framingham Heart Study tracked the cardiac health of thousands of people over 20 years. It found that “men who don’t take vacations were 30% more likely to have a heart attack and for women it went up to 50%,” according to Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One has the Time.”

Researchers have also found that vacation is valuable for mental health and well-being.

“Vacation is essential to reset and remind yourself that career is not the be-all and end-all. There are other facets to a healthy existence,” said Sherry Amatenstein, a New York City-based therapist, in an interview with CNN.

So if you haven’t put a vacation on your calendar for the end of the summer, or at least before the end of the year, it’s not too late. Enjoy. And please send photos. Just not too many. It might add to my stress.

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