I hope you're not reading this. That's because, this being mid-August, I hope as many people as possible are on vacation somewhere -- maybe someplace exotic, or maybe just a relaxing staycation at home. And if you are on vacation, you definitely shouldn't be staring into screens -- so please, close the computer or power down your phone immediately and take a walk outside.
Unfortunately, all too many of us could be on vacation but choose not to. That's the finding of a striking and important new study released this morning by Travel Effect, an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association. Entitled "Overwhelmed America: Why Don't We Use Our Paid Time Off?," the study found that 40 percent of American workers will leave paid vacation days unused.
Even more revealing are the reasons respondents gave for leaving paid time off on the table. The four reasons cited the most are the dread of returning from a vacation to piles of work (40 percent), the belief that no one will be able to step in and do their job for them while they're gone (35 percent), not being able to afford it (33 percent) and the fear of being seen as replaceable (22 percent).
"Americans suffer from a work martyr complex," said Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "In part, it's because 'busyness' is something we wear as a badge of honor. But it's also because we're emerging from a tough economy and many feel less secure in their jobs. Unfortunately, workers do not seem to realize that forfeiting their vacation time comes at the expense of their overall health, well-being and relationships."
In fact, not taking time off from work also comes at the expense of our performance at work. This study shouldn't be an alarm bell just for workers but for employers too. Recent years have brought us a mountain of science about both the costs of burnout and overwork and the benefits of unplugging and recharging. In short, the long-term health and well-being of a company's employees is going to impact the long-term health and well-being of the company's bottom line.
We know, for instance, that, according to the World Health Organization, stress costs American businesses around $300 billion per year. Sleep deprivation tacks on another $63 billion.
Living a life in which we work all the time and never prioritize recharging simply isn't sustainable -- not for individuals, and not for companies either. As Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, puts it, "the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less." He cites a 2006 internal study of Ernst and Young employees that found that for every additional 10 hours of vacation an employee took, his or her performance ratings went up by 8 percent -- nearly 1 percent per day of vacation. That means companies where employees are leaving two and three and four weeks of vacation on the table are foregoing an enormous productivity boost. The study also found that employees who took regular vacations were less likely to leave the company.
This shouldn't be that surprising. Humans are wired to perform and then to recharge. "The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology," Schwarz writes. "Human beings aren't designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we're meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy." And that means on both the smaller, hour-to-hour scale and the larger time frame of week to week and month to month.
Of course, many of the changes that we so badly need in our workplace culture will have to come from the top. As we can see from the reasons employees give for not taking their paid vacation, employees do not seem to be getting a strong message from management of the importance of vacation and renewal time. This was also borne out by the Travel Effect study, which found that even though a whopping 95 percent of senior business leaders say they know the value of taking time off, 67 percent of employees say their company is either silent about taking vacation, sends mixed signals about it or even actively discourages it. And a third of senior leaders say they either never or rarely discuss taking vacation with their employees.
Nor are they leading very well by example. When senior leaders do take time off, almost half (46 percent) continue to answer email, and nearly a third (29 percent) keep making work calls (meaning their families aren't getting much of them during vacation either!). All in all, only 37 percent of senior leaders say they unplug completely from work on vacation.
There was a bit of good news in the study. Researchers found that when employees work at a company with a "use it or lose it" vacation policy -- meaning you can't roll over or bank vacation days -- 84 percent plan to take all their paid vacation days this year. This compares with only 48 percent of workers at companies that allow them to bank their vacation days.
So, clearly, we need to work harder about working smarter -- by not working all the time. The "work martyr" complex needs to go the way of the Dictaphone, the typewriter and green eyeshades as relics of the workplace of the past. (OK, I like typewriters, but you get the idea.) We now know too much about what works and what doesn't work at work. If nearly all senior business executives know how valuable time off is for their employees -- and, thus, their companies -- it's time to move beyond knowing to doing. We need to turn the incentive structure around. Overwork, exhaustion and burnout are what should be red-flagged and discouraged, and those employees who take all their paid vacation (in addition to leaving at a reasonable hour each night, eating lunch away from their desks, taking time throughout the day to recharge, etc.) are the ones who should be commended, promoted and held up as institutional role models.
So if you're one of the 40 percent of American workers who are going to be leaving some vacation days on the table, close this page, open up a travel site and make some reservations. Or, first, click over to HuffPost Travel for suggestions on where to go and how to get there. Or don't go anywhere -- just take time off to recharge and reconnect with your own family, friends and community at home. Tell your boss you're doing it for the company.