The 2-week vacation used to be as normal a summer rite as barbecues and flip-flops. My dad would pile us into the station wagon, and we'd head out on windblown road trips (minus air conditioning) across the western U.S. Today, only 14 percent of Americans take two weeks or more at one time, one Harris survey found.
The average vacation is now a long weekend. Pretty soon you'll be able to take your vacation on your lunch break. Micro-cations don't cut it for your life or health. Vacations can cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, but research shows it takes two weeks for that recovery process to occur (1). To get the recuperative benefits of a vacation, you need time and, believe it or not, there are ways you can get it with the right mindset and strategies.
Let's start with the time off you may already have in your vacation policy. Many people are reluctant to use it (an Expedia survey shows only 38% of Americans use all their vacation time) for fear they might be considered someone who likes vacations, and, therefore, must not like to work. Or they fear everything would fall apart in their absence. Or they fear layoffs. The dirty little secret is that people who don't take vacations get laid off like everyone else. I spoke to a woman at a hi-tech firm in California who had four weeks coming to her because of her long tenure there, but never took more than a couple long weekends a year. She got laid off after 25 years, and now she's asking, "Where did my life go?"
Your vacation is your best chance each year to live your life as freely and fully as possible. When you skip a vacation, you skip out on life. That time is never coming back again. Handing back vacation time is handing back the best times of your life. If your company has a vacation policy, you're entitled to it by law.
Another woman I spoke to, an account executive in Lansing, Michigan, never took more than two weeks of the three weeks she was entitled to. She was convinced that, without her finger in the dike, everything would implode. Then one year she broke down and took her full three weeks. She returned refreshed and amazed to find the earth still spun on it axis. Nothing happened while she was gone. "It was all in my head. I survived it, I loved it," she said. Now she thinks about all the living time she gave back for so many years.
Vacations get us in touch with one of the most potent forces of well-being: experiences. As I discovered in the research for my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," engaged recreational experiences are the missing link to life satisfaction. These activities we mistake as deviations from production satisfy our core psychological needs like nothing else. They are a resource to reduce stress and build positive mood every week of the year.
It's easier to take vacations and get more time on them when you take a proactive approach to them. It's no secret. What makes long holidays in Europe possible, besides national minimum paid-leave laws of four or five weeks, is that they are planned absences. Planning makes absences in the workplace not only feasible, but normal, as they once were here (the vacation itself is a concept invented by companies to revitalize workers). Even though firms in the U. S. may have vacation policies, they don't do any planning to account for vacation absences.
Across the Atlantic, practical strategies and more efficient management make vacations work for companies and employees. Businesses plan for the time off, and employees cross-train to pick up the slack when folks are on holiday. At the beginning of the year, everyone sits down and hashes out when they will take their holidays. Schedules are set and built into operations. As a result, the trips don't interrupt productivity, as one U.S. manager of an engineering firm in Rotterdam, Holland explained to me. Though his Dutch employees had six weeks off, "There was no reduction whatsoever in productivity," Water Perkins told me.
In Denmark, management plans vacations into the workflow of the company and makes sure they have the ability to cover people while they're gone. Holidays are factored into budgeting, production, every facet of the operation. Here in the U.S., companies don't plan for the vacations that are in their policies, and neither do most of their employees. Last-minute vacations cause headaches for employees and employers. The key is planning. Get your plans rolling four months ahead of time. You'll get the best deals, and you'll lock the company and yourself into a schedule that is much more likely to make your trip happen.
Thinking ahead of time facilitates the use of cross-training, the practice of sharing your job duties with other people. A German friend of mine, Jurgen Lattenkamp, who is an MRI tech, divides his job among three other people at his small company when he takes his three-week trip each year. "I give my job to different people," says Lattenkamp. "Twenty percent there, 30 percent there, 50 percent there." An American who worked in Europe, Elliot Robertson, told me he supervised a department of five. "We would all cross train. Every department did its own cross training."
That could happen within your department as well. Cross training is not some European anomaly. The U. S. Army uses it, and so do a few enlightened companies here, such as the H Group, a financial services firm in Oregon where everyone pitches in for someone else when they're on vacation. Even the boss, Ron Kelemen. Nothing builds teamwork like knowing that people you work with are helping you get a life. Cross training, along with a program that focuses on the importance of time off and refueling, has been so successful that Kelemen has doubled his profits.
The only folks who get more vacation time are the ones who ask for it. Here are a few strategies that can help you do that:
1. Start a cross-training program within your department. Don't wait for cross training to come down from on high. Start a test program and demonstrate its success -- increased productivity, job satisfaction, engagement. This is how Best Buy's corporate culture was changed to the Results Only Work Environment, where folks can work from anywhere at any time; it started in one department and filtered up. Cross training could not only make it easier for you to take the time you have, but to ask for more. You and your colleagues are covered when you're out.
2. Negotiate for more vacation when you start a job. It is possible, if your talents are in demand, and you know the company wants you, to negotiate for more than the stated vacation policy. One HR person I spoke to says she's seen one and even two additional weeks of vacation time given to people her company really wants.
3. Present evidence for more vacation time. Studies show an annual vacation can cut the risk of heart attack by 32 percent in men (2) and data from the famed Framingham Heart Study shows that women who don't take vacations are eight times more likely to suffer from heart disease. Vacations increase performance when you get back to work, in one study by as much as 25 percent (3).
4. Offer an incentive. Several people have told me that they made their bosses a pitch that their productivity would increase with an extra week off. After they took the extra week, their productivity soared. Demonstrate the power of refueling, and it's a win-win for all.
5. Take unpaid time off. Try asking for a week off without pay. Companies are only too happy to save money. I was able to do this at several companies I worked at.
6. Buy more time. Some companies let you buy and sell vacation time. You buy and sell at 100 percent of the value of your regular wages for the time period traded. The time you buy is deducted from your wages over a specified period. You can buy an extra week or even two weeks this way. Of course, this adds to your vacation costs, but at least you get the time.
And time is the real money. Our supply of it, (e.g., lifespan) is extremely limited. The more you can put to the service of living now the fewer regrets you'll have later. As an old saying goes, if you haven't had a day off, you haven't had a day on.
1. Hobfoll, Shirom; Stress and Burnout in the Workplace: Conservation of Resources, Handbook of Organizational Behavior, 1993.
2. Gump, Matthews: Are Vacations Good for Your Health?, Psychosomatic Medicine Sept.-Oct. 2001.
3. Rosekind, Alertness Solutions, 2006.