Why Won’t We Take Vacations?

Why Won’t We Take Vacations?

Worker burnout started long before the pandemic.

As the American workforce plods toward 2022 and a hoped-for “return” to some kind of normalcy, employers in virtually every industry are revisiting their paid time-off policies.

Especially after the nightmare of 2020 and much of 2021, when remote work forced increased isolation—and when travel for business or pleasure was vastly curtailed due to Covid-19 restrictions—employees and supervisors alike viewed their paid time off as a sort of existential perk. There really was nowhere to go, no one to go there with, and no realistic chance of “getting away from it all,” because few destinations were safe.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employees took far fewer paid days off in 2020 than in previous years, choosing to reserve their PTO in case they were affected by Covid or needed to quarantine or care for a loved one.

That trend continued in 2021, causing SHRM, in an All Things Work podcast in July, to urge employers to reconsider “use it or lose it” policies for paid time off. That meant that more companies, in the face of huge worker challenges as well as dire worker shortages, should nonetheless think about letting employees roll over a certain number of paid hours into the next year.

The problem with PTO and employees not using it didn’t just start with the pandemic, however.  According to a 2019 study by the U.S. Travel Association, employees’ use of paid time off peaked in 1981, at 21.2 days annually. 

Experiencing the benefit of leaving work behind has, in other words, been on a steady slide for the last 40 years. So what’s really keeping people from taking a vacation?

A review of the vast amount of research on “vacation deprivation” and its ill effects on productivity indicates that few executives fully grasp the health danger to workers who forgo vacations.

One of the most famous and oft-cited studies, authored by Brooks Gump, a psychologist from the State University of New York, and Karen Matthews, a psychiatrist from the University of Pittsburgh, followed more than 12,000 middle-aged men, ages 35–57, at high risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) after the men had participated in a clinical trial.

For each of the five years after the study concluded, the men were asked a simple question: “Within the last 12 months, have you experienced a vacation?” The researchers found that the steady vacationers—men who took one annual vacation for each of the post-trial five years—were at significant “reduced risk” of dying for any reason, and, “more specifically, mortality attributed to CHD.”

The doctors concluded, in the bland wording of research scientists, that “frequent annual vacations, a common form of respite, may well serve a health protective function.” Put another way, it’s not just smoking, lack of exercise, and poor eating habits that affect the health of vulnerable workers. Not taking “respite” time off can have an equally devastating effect.  

Knowing that something is bad for you, like skipping an annual vacation, does not automatically translate into healthier behavior. Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, recently delved into specific habits employees should be encouraged to adopt so they are confident enough to leave and enjoy their time away.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review in May, Markman emphasized that employees should start planning three months ahead of the desired vacation time, pointing out that if the planning is left to the end, the vacation will more than likely be shelved.  

Markman also said that the vacation should be at least a week, because “it often takes a day or two to stop thinking about your email, projects, and teammates.” 

Further, the beauty of being away for a week or more, as he correctly pointed out, is that it “gives you several days where you know that you’re still on vacation the next day.”

Finally, Markman concluded that employees should “go somewhere—anywhere,” a notion that eviscerates the somewhat silly idea of a “staycation” after many have worked (and taught their children) from home for over a year.  

Despite the well-documented mental and physical benefits of vacations, including for workers with no documented health deficits, the real bugaboo nonetheless remains: one’s coworkers.

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Lean staffing and the fear of appearing less than committed to an enterprise struggling post-pandemic undoubtedly stymies the employee’s urge to take time off even when it’s paid.

Anticipating resentment or outright hostility from the “ones left behind” can only be eradicated if the work culture itself changes. That means that when a coworker or boss is on vacation, whether or not she sends pictures of her toes in the sand, you do not email, call, or text her. And she must then do the same for you when it’s your turn to unplug.

Wiring vacation time into the workplace as mandatory, rather than as an occasional luxury, benefits the entire business ecosystem, not just the travel industry. 

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).