Working Smarter

5 Ways We Cut Vacations, and Life, Short

Posted by Joe Robinson

Aitutaki Island is the place for vacation copy

Not only do Americans have the shortest annual paid vacations by far among industrialized nations, we also have developed a habit over the last couple decades of self-inflicting even shorter holidays than are in our company policies by leaving untaken vacation days on the table.

It’s bad for your health, productivity, leaves you with life highlights unlived, and I would like to simply plead, don’t do it again this summer!


A Glassdoor survey found that half of American workers give back unused vacation time every year.  Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey reports the grim stat that Americans give back some 400 million vacation days each year.

An Australian or German vacationer would find it incomprehensible to give back a single hour of their allotment of four to six weeks. Wait a minute! You are actually going to voluntarily abbreviate your holiday? No, that would be certifiable.

Not taking all your vacation time is like handing back your paycheck, only worse, since you are handing back priceless items such as life experiences, which studies show make us happier than material things. They are the living we are making for ourselves, the proof of some semblance of work-life balance and a reminder of what's out there for us if we are.

The annual holiday is your best chance all year of fully partaking in the panoply of life opportunities free of duty and obligation. The time you shave from your vacay or holiday that's skipped completely is never coming back again. That's not going to sit well when you look back over your life. We regret more the things we don't do than what we do. Researchers call it "the inaction effect."


The research tells us that not taking all our time off is a lose-lose, for you and the company. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% when we return from a vacation. Studies show breaks of all kinds, from five minutes to two-week vacations increase productivity. Minds and bodies get rebooted after the recuperative time away from the source of stress. It takes less effort to get the job done when we come back to the job.

The tradition of the American vacation was actually started back in the 1920s and 1930s by companies as a productivity tool. Fatigue studies back then showed that when workers returned rejuvenated from their holiday, output increased. It was a factory era back in those days, so you might think, yeah, a physical break made sense. Today, we’re just sitting on our butts, though.


Researchers say the brain goes down well before the body, and when it does, so does your chief productivity tool, attention. The source of productivity in the knowledge economy is a refreshed and energized brain. Vacations provide recreation, as in re-creation, for your mental faculties. They turn off job stress and increase positive emotions as well as gratify core needs such as autonomy and competence.

Burnout is the opposite of employee engagement, which all organizations want, since engaged employees are some 28% more productive. Its main dimension is exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Vacations can cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, by regathering crashed emotional resources, like a sense of mastery and social support (Hobfoll, Shirom). But here’s the kicker, it takes two weeks of vacation for this recuperative process to occur, so we need to take all our time off to get the health benefits.

It also takes time if you want to travel to another hemisphere and see an exotic realm like the Cook island of Aitutaki (top photo), a series of islets ringing a sunken volcano over which a lagoon has formed. It's jammed with colorful fish, a snorkeler's dream, and devoid of something that usually interrupts our dreams: stress. 


What prevents Americans from taking all the time coming to them? Mostly unfounded fear and guilt, all-consuming busyness, digital addiction, and the inability to plan. These are all conquerable obstacles.

1. Defensive overworking. Fear kills vacation time by making people think that if they take all their vacation time, or take it all at one time, that they will be seen as a slacker. It could make them more expendable in the next round of layoffs. It’s called defensive overworking—working longer, skipping vacations, or cutting them short to underscore commitment and bolster a hard-working image. The reality is, though, that people who skip vacations get laid off like everyone else.

Inle girl

One woman I interviewed had been with her company for two decades, and had five weeks vacation as a result. Yet she only took a couple of long weekends off each year for fear of it making her seem too replaceable and not gung-ho enough. Then she got laid off. Now she wonders where her life went. Let your productivity and engagement at work speak for itself. Vacation denial is futile. All things change, all companies change. Live now or never.

2. Email derangement syndrome. It seems implausible that people would actually forego vacation time because of too much email when they get back to their desks, but no. This actually happens. Nobody likes a pile of email, but is a bunch of it really worth passing on your life? Like all fears, it’s just the prospect of it, not the reality, that makes you think you can’t handle it, which is the cue for the stress response to go off. At the worst, you have a couple of days of heavy email on return, and it’s over.

The better solution is to put a notification on your vacation email autoresponder stating that email will not be checked while you’re gone and to send it when you are back in the office. Many of the issues prompting the email will have been resolved by the time you get back. You can also designate someone else to take care of issues in your absence.

3. Coworker guilt. I hear this one a lot. People are afraid of burdening their coworkers and teams with extra work as a result of their taking time off, so they shave off vacation days here and there. Granted, staffs are leaner these days, but it’s crucial to ask yourself how many of your coworkers would feel guilty about you having to do extra work on account of their vacation. If the time off is in your company policy, you are entitled to take it.

The answer here is to have cross-training within teams and departments. This is one of the secrets to European vacations as well as holidays for those in the U.S. Army. The idea is that each of us trains colleagues on bits of our job—20% here, 30% there, etc.—and while we are gone, those folks fill in for us. When they are on vacations, we pick up the slack for them. Cross-training builds tight teamwork like nothing else. You are grateful to your teammates who help you get your vacay, and they feel the same about you helping them get out and live.

Companies who use cross-training report massive increases in teamwork and productivity. Ron Kelemen, head of the H Group in Salem, Oregon, told me that an extra week of vacation combined with cross-training was the best productivity strategy he’d ever seen.

Girl in Ireland copy

4. The "I'm-too-busy" mental block.  In a culture that celebrates rote busy-ness as productivity, when often it’s just commotion without conscious thought or forward movement, many of us these days can get trapped in a false belief that we can never stop or step back. There’s too much to do. We can’t be out of email touch and might missing something important. The mental block of busy-ness tells us there’s no time to take off. I'm too busy to think about a holiday or plan a vacation.

Busy-ness also drives hurry-worry and time urgency, which aggravate the perception of zero time for anything that’s not productive, like your life. To take time, you have to make time, plan months in advance, and put your vacation on the calendar so it’s locked in for yourself and your team. Ask yourself, am I too busy to live?

Rote busy-ness also fuels mechanical momentum, which can lead to being so wrapped up in the day-to-day duties, that it appears all will fall apart without you. If you aren’t there, things will go to Hades. As former vacation-skippers have told me, the job, the team, and the company did not implode when they finally took a long overdue vacation. It was just a fear, and fears have an abysmal track record as a predictive tool.

5. Macho-rexia bravado. Many a vacation gets shrunk or tossed out of a belief that the job is a macho endurance contest. Whoever is left standing at 11:30 p.m. wins. In this view taking a vacation or one of any length is wimpy or weak. This doesn’t just cut vacations short, it can lead to cutting life short from the diseases of overperformance and workaholism, from heart attacks to stroke and hypertension. Like anorexia, macho-rexia is a self-driven affliction that comes from excess concern about what others think.

Extreme hours and skipping vacations may get a clap on the back, but at what cost? Toughness is an inside job—working smarter, not at the threshold of pain.  Instead of bragging about late nights and weekends worked, try telling others about that bicycle trip in the wine country of California or what it was like to parasail. Researcher Leaf van Boven and colleagues have found that people like folks more who have experiences to share.

Let’s make a vow this summer to not fall for lame, self-defeating busyness, the no-time rut, the guilt and bravado, and forego the masochism, instead of the vacation. Discover the power of the rapture of being alive as fully as you can experience it for as many days as you can squeeze in. 


Tags: leaving vacation time on the table, vacation time, vacations and life balance

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