The Down-Time Dilemma

Last year, U.S. workers left nearly 430 million paid vacation days unused, according to a U.S. Travel Association study. And it seems it’s often the most stressed among us who leave the most time on the table. “I don’t have time to take a vacation,” I often hear, followed by reasons ranging from inflexible or overwhelming work commitments to pressing family obligations.

But what’s really at work here? Akbar Shahid Ahmed recently wrote in  that Americans have been socialized by employers and a work-obsessed culture into thinking that “time off is wasted.” He theorizes that’s why we have pilloried presidents from Reagan to Clinton, Bush to Obama for spending time at their favorite spots for unwinding.

A Dubious Honor
U.S. workers are guaranteed no vacation time by law, while employees in all other industrialized nations are legally mandated roughly 10 to 30 paid vacation days—often in addition to paid holidays. So when we Americans tend to have fewer vacation days to start with, why would we fail to take all of them? The U.S. Travel Association Study’s top cited reasons are a “mountain of work” making it difficult to take time off (90%), nobody else can do the work (33%) or they can’t afford it (33%). Compounding the problem, data show, is that 80% of workers don’t feel encouraged or supported in taking time off.

Reality or Perception?
I admit to having been caught up in this perception-warping cultural phenomenon. For years, I was chastised for “working too much” by family and friends. My husband would say, “Why be your own boss if you’re going to be such a tyrant about taking time off? ”

Why, indeed?

What I’ve learned over the past decade or so is my belief that I couldn’t take off more time was based primarily in a fear of letting down clients. So I employed a process I often suggest to my coaching clients: reality-testing my hypothesis. I asked clients for honest feedback on whether my vacation was inconveniencing them.

The result? I learned that, not only did they not feel inconvenienced, they applauded me for taking vacation. It seems everyone would like to take guilt-free time off. I also learned that, regardless of whether they actually do it, most people believe taking time off is crucial to being their best at work and in their personal lives.

The results of my informal poll are echoed in the U.S. Travel survey, in which 96% of workers said it was “important” or “extremely important” to take time off. Turns out, taking time off not only benefits individuals, who report feeling relaxed and recharged, happier and more motivated upon their return, but also the economy. If employees would take just one additional day of paid leave each year, the study estimates the economy would benefit to the tune of $73 billion dollars in total impact.

Time-Out Tips
These days, I not only take week-long or longer vacations, I also take off impromptu days when I just need a recharge. Without fail, I return better for the free time, whether spent with family, friends or solo.  

As a student of down time, I share a few suggestions:

  • Encourage those you supervise to take vacation. If you’re in a leadership role, clearly communicating the importance of using paid time off could be a great gift to both your company and your burned-out employees. In the U.S. Travel Association study, eight in 10 workers said if their boss fully supported and encouraged them to take their time off, they would be more likely to do it. So encourage others—and walk the talk yourself!
  • It’s more about quality than quantity. If you’re feeling frazzled, even one day—or a few hours—spent doing something that feeds your soul and “resets” your autonomic nervous system will likely lead to better mental and physical health.
  • Everybody’s different. Know who and what replenishes you and actively seek it out. For some, it’s nature or family; for others, it’s the city’s bustle or time with favorite friends.
  • Turn off your technology. For those of us who have been conditioned to read every email or answer every call or text as it comes in, give yourself permission to disconnect. If this creates inordinate anxiety, that’s all the more reason to learn to do so.
  • If you can’t take “time off,” change your surroundings. Depending on the nature of your work or tasks, you might head to the local coffee shop, down the hall to an unused conference room or to an area where you can collaborate with others who can help with something you’re stuck on. Be creative! If you find yourself saying, “I can’t do that,” ask “Why not?”

What’s your time-off philosophy? Please share your insights—and remember to give yourself permission to enjoy your down time, whether a week, a day or an hour at a time.