Americans need to work on taking vacations

  • Article by: BRIGID SCHULTE , Washington Post
  • Updated: September 3, 2014 - 1:38 PM

Did you skip taking time off over the summer? You might be suffering from work martyr complex.

Labor Day marked the end of the summer vacation season, but for 40 percent of U.S. workers, it didn’t matter. They don’t take vacation.

Americans accumulate 430 million days of unused paid vacation a year, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Why? Turns out a lot of us have what is called a “work martyr complex.” We will stay on the job even if it costs us in our health, well-being and relationships.

“We found that people have this whole busyness as a badge of honor thing,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the association. “We’re becoming a nation of work martyrs. People really wear it on their sleeves how they don’t take time off. Everyone around the world looks at Americans like we’re crazy.”

For their report, “Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Earned Leave?” the association hired GfK Public Affairs to survey more than 1,300 Americans. About 40 percent said they don’t take vacations because they worry about returning to a mountain of work, 35 percent said they feel that no one else can do their job, a third said they couldn’t afford to use their paid time off and 20 percent said they didn’t want to be seen as replaceable.

At the same time, 90 percent of those surveyed rated their vacations as close to perfect, and majorities said vacations helped them relax and recharge, reduced their stress, enabled them to build closer relationships with their families and made them happier.

“We also found this tremendous disconnect. Senior executives said it was really important for their people to take vacation, get recharged. But when we asked if they ever talked about it, 33 percent of the senior executives said never or rarely,” Dow said.

“And two-thirds of the employers say, ‘I never hear my supervisor talk about the importance of vacation.’ Everyone thinks taking vacation is the right thing to do, yet it’s not something that’s spoken about in the workplace.”

When it comes to taking time off, managers didn’t set a very good example, either. The survey found that nearly half answer e-mails while on vacation and three in 10 return work calls. In fact, just 37 percent of senior managers surveyed fully unplug from work while they’re away.

Dow’s association represents the $900 billion travel industry, two-thirds of which is what he calls “leisure travel” that people take on vacation. An earlier report by Oxford Economics estimated that American’s unused vacation days could mean an additional $67 billion in travel spending, as well as more jobs and earned income.

The reports, Dow said, are an attempt to start a conversation about why Americans need to use all their vacation time for their own physical and mental health and well-being, as well as the health of the economy.

“I look at our own organization, we’re phenomenally effective, and people do enjoy and take their time off,” he said. “There’s no relationship to taking time off and being a slacker.”

To prove his point, Dow has pledged a $500 bonus to any of the association’s 60 employees who take their full paid vacation time this year.

As for himself? “I just looked last week and saw I hadn’t taken vacation, so I’m going to take 10 days and go to Australia,” Dow said. “I was an offender. No question about it.”

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