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The Hidden Costs of Not Taking Vacations

Jun 12, 2017
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SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Americans are known to be good at many things. Vacationing isn't one of them.

Year after year, workplace surveys reveal that millions of American workers failed to take their allotted vacation days. And increasingly, the overriding reason is fear.

In 2016, 54 percent of Americans ended the year with unused vacation days, according to a survey from the U.S. Travel Association's Project Time Off. Collectively, that's 662 million paid days off – 206 million of which cannot be rolled over or exchanged for money.

Fear of falling behind in our work was the leading deterrent to taking time off, with 43 percent of people citing this as their chief reason for sticking around the office. And that worry seems to go hand-in-hand with the No. 2 reason for not taking vacation, the fear that no one else can do the job in our place.

Overall, fear plays a big role, says J. Gerald Suarez, professor of the practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

While many of us fear our absence will be dearly missed, we also fear that someone else will step up in our absence and maybe do a better job. We dread being replaceable.

"I love that quote from Mark Twain that says, 'I've been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened,'" says Suarez, who is also a fellow in the Smith School's Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change.

But it's not all fear-based, this reluctance to sit on a beach somewhere. American corporate culture is fixated on productivity, efficiency and constant connectedness. Globalization and technological advances have only heightened the emphasis on working around the clock, 365 days a year, harnessed to our smartphones, spanning the time zones where our jobs are relevant.

"What is downtime in one region is peak time in another region," Suarez says. "There is no time to pause. We can be out with our families, or on vacation, but one email takes us right back to the action."

The benefits of recharging

By forfeiting those 206 million vacation days, Americans essentially gave up $66.4 billion in benefits last year alone.

Suarez says some of those workers might have experienced short-term benefits, by not taking those paid days off, in terms of their own performance or competitiveness. "But those gains may be at the expense of long-term failures," he says. Taking a much-needed break can help improve productivity and creativity, and stave off office tension, workplace accidents, job-related errors, stress, fatigue, even illnesses.

"There are benefits to recharging and to looking at old problems from new perspectives," Suarez says. "We are more prone to make new connections and thinking of new ideas when we have the capacity to step back and look at old problems with fresh eyes."

But first, workers must break through the fear and actually take the vacations, and, Suarez says, good managers can help encourage that.

"People in leadership positions should lead by example," he says. "They need to take the time off themselves."

Bosses who remain constantly connected to the office while on vacation, sending work-related emails and participating in video conferences, send a strong signal to their employees. "It sets an expectation: If the boss is always connected, I have to do the same," Suarez says.

The Cultural Influences at Play

About 26 percent of Americans, according to the Project Time Off survey, sacrifice vacation time to demonstrate their dedication to their employers. "It is seen a badge of honor," Suarez says. And though that trait may cross cultural lines, it is particularly prevalent in the U.S. workforce.

Suarez, who has worked around the world, says he would notice the contrast most when working overseas. "I can remember colleagues I was with actually saying to me, 'What's the hurry? Slow down. Enjoy the process. Enjoy life itself.' "

It can be difficult to do. For Europeans, taking vacations and mini-vacations throughout the year  is the norm. It's not uncommon to take a full month off work. Some countries even mandate time off. Not so in the U.S.

"At a visceral level, everybody really wants to take vacations," Suarez says. "But in a culture that values accomplishment, that rewards superstars, where there is only one first place and you have winners and then everybody else, the temptation of trying to optimize every day is very real."

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.