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Is America Finally Getting Comfortable With Vacation Time?

Employees are often reflexively adopt a defensive crouch even though there’s no need to do so.

Americans should work on taking more time off. About half of us don’t use all of our vacation allowance, and typically we work a full month more than our parents and grandparents did back in 1976. But something unexpected happened in 2016. For the first time in more than fifteen years, the average worker took a half day more holiday than the year before. So is this a temporary blip, or are Americans finally getting comfortable with vacation time?

Then answer is complicated by Americans’ weird, mediated relationship with vacations. While most developed countries guarantee at least four weeks’ paid annual leave, there’s no set minimum for American workers. This generally means the amount of vacation time staff receive is hammered out during awkward contract negotiations, or not discussed at all. Employees are often concerned about asking for too much time off or reflexively adopt a defensive crouch even though there’s no need to do so.

“Despite employees’ perceptions, when we talk to managers and business leaders they’re overwhelmingly supportive of time off,” says Katie Denis, lead researcher at Project: Time Off, an awareness-raising initiative that tries to promote a healthier attitude towards work. The problem may not be the message, but the medium, which is compensation-centric rather than couched in terms of quality of life and self management.

More than two-thirds of employees feel they receive discouraging or mixed messages about taking time off for vacation. When workers feel judged or like they might miss out on career opportunities, they’re less eager to ask for time off. This culture of silence breeds fear of job loss and distrust of colleagues.

“There’s definitely a cultural component to America’s vacation problem. People are made to feel guilty if they take time off or fearful they might lose their job,” says Joe Robinson, a stress management trainer and author of the influential book Work to Live. “The result is what’s called ‘defensive overworking’, which means skipping vacations to try and avoid the next round of layoffs.”

But anyone who buys into that myth is misguided. Employees who forfeited vacation time last year are actually less likely to have received a raise or bonus or to have been promoted than those who did not forfeit days.

“Companies can look at the data on productivity and see that vacations help, not hinder productivity,” says Robinson. “People who work seven 50-hour weeks get no more done than those who work seven 40 hours in a row, because they have to pace themselves to do it. Brains have to get off task every two hours to reset and bring back alertness.”

Vacation time isn’t just good for business, it’s also good for work performance and productivity – a fact that senior business leaders are already well aware of. A survey found that 84 percent of managers agree that when employees take time off, they return to work with improved focus and creativity.

“It’s counterproductive for employees to avoid vacation time. All it does is lead to more stress and ultimately to burnout,” says Robinson. “Productivity is all about a refreshed brain, which is the source of the main productivity tool: attention. Vacations allow our brains to reset and restore our crashed emotional resources. We’re just like smartphones, we have to have our energy restored.”

Workers who take vacations enhance their mental flexibility and are more likely to sniff out creative solutions that feed back into their work. Still, there’s a modern problem: When US workers do take time off work, they often find it difficult to disconnect from the office. Over half of us now work remotely while we’re supposed to be on vacation. The first few days of holiday are often spoiled by high blood pressure, poor sleep and migraines as the body tries to recover from the buildup of stress.

“It’s important to make sure that employees can mentally switch off from their work during vacation. Managers should serve as role models,” says Jana Kühnel, assistant professor of work and organisational psychology at Ulm University. “They should take vacations and also communicate they’re unavailable during their time off.”

Managers that do that aren’t just doing a favor for their employees, they’re helping the economy writ large.

Last year, employees declining to take days off cost the US economy some $236 billion. Whether it’s flight tickets or gas, kids’ toys or extra beer, sales for just about everything boom during holiday seasons.

“If no vacation time had been missed last year, the stimulus would have been large enough to support 1.8 million American jobs and to generate an additional $70 billion in income for American workers,” says Denis.

So, taking all that into account, does America finally seem to be getting comfortable with taking time off? The broad answer seems to be no, but companies driven by analytical insights rather than traditional workplace culture are potentially pushing the ball forward on the idea of time off as not only productive but part and parcel of an employee’s obligation to an employer. Some US companies are going beyond offering “use-it-or-lose-it” vacation policies to nudge workers into taking time off. TED closes its doors for a fortnight every summer, insisting that employees have shared vacation time and stay off out of their email inbox. The Huffington Post have introduced an out-of-office email tool that automatically deletes incoming messages, while listing an emergency contact for the sender.

Those are companies that operate in a specific milieu and don’t crack the Fortune 500, but the flexibility afforded to workers in the tech sector shows that there are downstream effects of so-called thought leadership on the issue. It has ceased to be cool for managers to brag about wringing work from their employees. The new metrics are about efficiency and those numbers indicate that America needs to go some place and get both a tan and some sleep.