Here’s Why You Need a Vacation

Work can provide us with a sense of meaning and well-being, but sometimes, we just need a break. Without recovery periods our ability to keep performing at high levels diminishes. When employees take more vacation, they become happier, more productive and more creative, and they are less likely to suffer from burnout or other mental health issues. But at a glance -and despite the benefits of vacations to employees, employers, and the economy- it can look like we still need some convincing before taking the leap to using our vacation days.

Why You Need a Vacation

Despite the United States being the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation or holiday days, Americans often fail to use the few days of paid time off they do get. In 2015, 55% of Americans left a total 658 million vacation days unused – an equivalent to $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits (an average of $604 per person!)

Does this mean that Americans just don’t like vacations? Unsurprisingly, that’s not the case. When people are asked about their attitudes towards holidays, almost none say that they would want less time off. In fact, 95% of employees say that using their paid time off is very important to them. And, quite remarkably, a large survey found that no one thought their vacation was a waste of time or that they’d rather be working.

The lesson of this is clear: There is a gap between people’s intentions and behavior when it comes to planning and taking their holidays.

If vacation is so important, why do Americans still leave so many of their paid days off on the table?

In a nationally representative survey of 7,331 Americans, researchers at Project Time Off set out to figure out why people weren’t using their vacation days. The three most common reasons study participants gave were:

They fear that they’ll return to a mountain of work.

The most prominent reservation people have towards taking time off is the dreaded feeling of what awaits you when you get back. 43% of surveyed participants said that this fear was the biggest barrier to taking time off. And this may also be a problem even for those who do take time off; with the advent of technology, there is often an expectation that we should be reachable at all times, including when we are away from the office. In fact, more than 60% of people say they keep working remotely while on vacation – which often leads to disagreements with spouses.

They feel like no one else can do the work while they’re gone.

As people get more seniority in a company, 33% say that their position becomes the largest barrier to time off. Many fear that no one else can do the work for them while they’re gone.

We often fail to accurately account for how we will feel in the future. This appears to be no less true in the case of vacations. A study by Ed O’Brien and Ellen Roney found that people often prefer “saving” trips for when they’ve finished work, believing that they would be distracted otherwise. Of course, if you wait for work to end, you may be waiting for a very long time. Regardless, this intuition appears to be mistaken. Vacations can be just as enjoyable with work left behind. It turns out people fail to account for how absorbed they will be when they are doing something enjoyable.

They feel like their superiors will think less of them.

Another significant barrier to taking a vacation is that many feel like it may jeopardize their job security. Survey respondents fear that time off makes them look less dedicated at work, that it may make them lose consideration for a promotion or raise, or that they will be seen as replaceable.

The opposite appears to be true when we look at what actually happens. People who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period, while those who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance. These “work martyrs” tend to be more stressed and less productive than their vacationing colleagues, and it doesn’t appear to be serving them well.

To fix it, plan ahead.

Some of the reasons Americans don’t take enough holidays are structural and should be addressed on a policy level or by employers. For example, U.S. policymakers could follow the example of their OECD counterparts and mandate paid vacation days. Or employers can make sure to model the behavior they want from employees, including explicitly encouraging them to use their vacation. However, as an employee, there are still things you can do yourself.

An effective way of ensuring your vacation days is to plan ahead. Among surveyed workers, 52% of those who say they set aside time each year to plan out their vacations use all of their days off, compared to just 40% of non-planners. We also tend to get a boost in happiness just from going through the motions of planning a vacation. One word of caution, however: Scheduling all activities on your trip can take the joy and spontaneity out of them. Instead, maintaining the free-flowing nature of the trip by “roughly scheduling” activities without pre-specified times increases enjoyment.

So, what are you waiting for? Now is as good a time as any to book your next vacation.