Here's what science says your unused vacation days really cost


If stress, burnout and a relentless to-do list commonly plague your sense of well-being and satisfaction, it's probably your own fault--at least if you live in the United States. According to a recent study conducted by economic researchers, Americans toil more hours, retire later in life and take fewer vacation days than people in other countries. In fact, they clock 25 percent more time on the job, compared with Europeans.

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American managers often send the wrong message.

This overwork can be problematic. According to Project: Time Off, a coalition of companies and organizations operating within the travel industry, 658 million vacation days went unused last year. And data collected by the market research firm GfK and crunched by Oxford Economics, indicates management often indirectly communicates that using all a person's allotted vacation time isn't OK. Check out these statistics from GfK's survey of 5,641 American workers:

  • 93 percent of managers say time off is good for their employees, yet 59 percent of managers didn't use all their vacation days last year. Executive and senior leaders were even worse role models: 67 percent left vacation days unused last year.

  • 91 percent of managers say they encourage time off, yet only 43 percent of them talk to employees once a year or less about vacation.

  • Only 55 percent of managers feel supported in taking time off, but an even fewer number of non-managers--39 percent--feel supported taking time off.

Burnout is a big deal.

Sending the message--intentionally or not--that vacationing is a bad thing certainly can result in burnout, which is the last thing anyone wants at work. People who suffer from it don't perform well, have low morale, get sick more often and experience higher absenteeism. What causes it? Essentially, it's what happens when chronic stress goes unchecked.

At the same time, the benefits of time away from work have been widely established. Employees who take time off return to the job with more capacity for productivity, focus and creativity. They're also more likely to log extra hours when their employees really need them to.

The virtues of working in moderation are why the project management software company Basecamp holds to a strict 40-hour workweek and the web app company Boomerang pays for all its employees to go on "workaway trips" to destinations like Hawaii and Switzerland where they spend more time sightseeing, cooking and hanging out than actually working. And the reality that people have an increasingly hard time not working around the clock is one factor that led to Intrepid Travel offering of tours where phones and devices are banned.

Companies can be more intentional about across-the-board vacationing.

Nobody wants to be the slacker in the office seemingly always on vacation while everybody else martyrs themselves by forgoing time off. But there are ways to encourage people to recharge away from work and thereby make vacationing more equitable:

  • Email that does not pile up to an unmanageable mess while people are away. Companies including Daimler and Huffington Post have used tools which automatically delete emails an employee receives while on vacation, alerting the sender of the action and encouraging him or her to retry the message once the person is back from break. Plus, by keeping an inbox quiet, a vacationer doesn't feel obliged to constantly be checking it, even while on vacation.

  • Office closures. It's hard to feel guilty about taking time off if everyone in the company is mandated to do it. Adobe and TED have glommed onto this thinking, and shut down a couple of weeks a year.

  • Trust and talent development. It's not really a good thing for your business if someone is so irreplaceable that no one else can fill-in when he or she is off. How can you invest in your team members so they can back each other up, and have trust doing so?

In the end, "too much work" should never be an excuse to vacation too little. Is any of it life or death? Are your deadlines real and immovable, or self-imposed? Chances are, your work can wait.

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