By Tony Tie
Be honest: When you planned out your summer, did you see a stretch of lazy days at the beach? Perhaps an invigorating week hiking mountain trails? Or did you see a parade of relentless deadlines, project commitments, and must-respond-now emails with no good time to get away?
It turns out more and more of us are talking ourselves out of taking the vacation we’ve earned — and we may be paying for it with our health.
However, the early results show these programs may not be having their intended effects. Without a precise allowance of paid time off, many employees end up taking fewer days. What’s more, the flexibility can create feelings of uncertainty about how many days off are really okay and a fear of being perceived as a less-than-dedicated employee for taking too much time.
The jury is still out on whether unlimited vacation will go mainstream, but Kickstarter was one company to discontinue the policy after it became clear its employees were taking significantly less time off.
Unlimited PTO, however, isn’t the only factor holding people back from taking vacation. It turns out the amount of time people take off work has been declining for years.
Up until the beginning of the third millennium, most people took advantage of the paid vacation days provided by their employers. Then, something funny happened. All of those innovations designed to make it easier to get work done (e.g., smartphones, Wi-Fi, etc.) contributed to a sharp decline in the use of vacation days.
Pre-2000, Americans took an average of 20.3 days off per year. Fast-forward to today, and the average is down to 16.2 days, with no sign of a turnaround anytime soon. In fact, employees forfeited 222 million vacation days — worth $61 billion in benefits — in 2015.
While it’s hard to imagine leaving that kind of money on the table, it’s actually not the biggest price we’re paying.
In 2016, most of us are doing more mental work than physical. While we think nothing of taking time to recoup after strenuous exercise, we don’t always recognize how much our brains need a break, too.
Without periods of downtime for our brains to recharge, it becomes harder to stay on task and solve problems. Not only does this affect work performance, but it also saps energy, causes stress, and takes a toll on our immune systems. Unchecked, the cycle inevitably leads to burnout.
The good news is that our brains are resilient. Taking time away — both short breaks and extended vacations — has a positive affect on physical and mental well-being. In fact, research by the American Sociological Association found a direct correlation between more vacations and reduced psychological stress.
A vacation done right focuses attention on things you enjoy — which, provided you truly unplug, delivers a mood boost through an influx of positive brain chemicals such as serotonin. And when travel takes you out of your day-to-day routine, you get an extra jolt of excitement as you explore a new environment. The change in scenery can serve as a much-needed reset for a tired mind, which, in turn, signals your body to dial back on the stress levels.
Removed from “real life” for a bit, you may find you sleep better, exercise more, and reconnect with loved ones. Post-vacation, you will return to work with a positive outlook, renewed focus, and energy to spare.
1. Have a getaway plan. Your brain isn’t recuperating if you’re constantly checking in, responding to emails and, even worse, dialing in to conference calls.
Treat your next vacation like you would a high-profile project: Map it out ahead of time, be realistic about what has to get done before you leave, line up the right backups, and trust they’ll do the work while you’re out. Then, leave — and don’t look back. Except for rare emergencies, the work will be there waiting for your rested and re-energized self to tackle upon your return.
2. Make it a strategic ask. Timing is everything. Take the business and your co-workers into account as you plan your vacation. You’ll want to avoid being away during peak times or missing critical meetings.
Whether you’ve been at a company for a few years or a few months, the best approach is to talk through your options with your manager well ahead of time. This way, you’ll get a heads up on any “don’t miss” days or potential conflicts that you should navigate around. Plus, collaborating with your boss is a great opportunity to show you’re committed to your responsibilities.
3. Use technology for good. Although technology often makes it hard to leave work behind, it can also help you step away with confidence.
Make the most out of project management software. Options with strong collaboration tools such as Mavenlink or Wrike show who’s working on what and when. Not only does this keep projects running, but it also makes it simple to designate who’s covering for you while you’re out.
Programs like Smartsheet or JIRA can build vacation time into a project’s timeline from the get-go while helping to manage time off across teams. With a little advanced planning and automation, vacations become a seamless part of project planning.
The bottom line: Most employees report improved concentration and productivity at work after they take time off. But despite all the evidence, only a quarter of American workers take their full vacation time. Be the one who takes time for you. Your relationships, career success, and even your life depend on it.
Image credit: Steven Lewis via Unsplash
Tony Tie is a “numbers-obsessed” marketer, as well as a life hacker and public speaker, who has helped various Fortune 500 companies grow their online presence. Located in Toronto, he is currently the senior search marketer at Expedia Canada, the leading travel-booking platform for flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises and local activities.