Feature Article: Make Time for Vacation

Ready for some fun? Time to take a vacation? For some Americans, that might be difficult. The World Tourism Organization lists Americans as having the least vacation time in the industrialized world. In annual vacation days, Italy comes up first with 42 days, France 37, Germany 35, Brazil 34, Great Britain 28, Canada 26, South Korea 25, Japan 25, and the U.S. a miserable 13. The Europeans and South Americans make fun of Americans about this, you know.

Because despite the small number of vacation days per year, one in six employees (roughly 18%) is so overworked that she or he is unable to use up annual vacation time, according to a 2001 Oxford Health Plans survey reported in USA Today. Do you have surplus vacation time that you haven’t been able to use up because you’re so busy? 

The Curse of the Overworked American

Gen-Xers really need a vacation, according to the Hilton Hotels Corp’s Generational Time Survey, a random telephone study of 1,220 Americans by research firm Yankelovich Partners. They found that 77 percent of Generation Xers (born 1965-1975), more than in any other generation, say they need a long vacation because of the pressure and stress of their daily lives, according to the survey. The youngest group, Generation Y (born 1976-1984), is nearly as eager for a vacation (73 percent), followed by baby boomers born 1946-1964 (68 percent). Mature Americans (born 1930-1945) are the least likely to need a vacation (47 percent), perhaps because they're also the least likely to say their lives are stressful (49 percent). Overall, two-thirds of Americans say they could use a long break. Why don’t we take it?

My guess is that in our society today, being constantly available to your customers (who might well be your co-workers) has become the battle cry. But a study conducted by the New York-based nonprofit Families and Work Institute suggests that many U.S. workers may be working too hard, leading to more mistakes on the job, neglected personal relationships and higher health-care costs. In the study, 46 percent of respondents said they felt overworked in one way or another, 24 percent of U.S. workers said they spent 50 or more hours on the job each week, and 22 percent said they worked six to seven days a week.

The feeling of being overworked is not solely because of the number of hours spent working. When you feel pressured and pushed, when you feel not respected, when you feel tension at work, or when you feel the work that you do isn’t of real value, that leads to overwork. The also survey found that those who said they felt overworked were more likely to neglect themselves and less likely to feel successful in their personal and family relationships. But so much of this is self-imposed. I’ve talked to a couple people who literally lost their families because of overwork, just to have their jobs downsized. I've known workers who have canceled vacations, or sent their families on ahead to theme parks or the beach, while they stayed behind to work. Mind you, a lot of these folks genuinely love their work. They don't mind working hard because they get recognition for it. But when a sudden change in leadership throws them for a loops, they find that their family lives and friendships have been neglected and their usual support systems are thus in tatters. It’s just not worth it.

Dr. Alan Muney, chief medical officer at Oxford Health Plans, says that, “Vacation is not frivolous behavior; it’s essential to staying healthy and productive. Regular vacations are preventive medicine—they cut down on stress-related illness and save health care dollars.” Overworked employees can lead to drastic on-the-job consequences. They are more likely to look for a new job, to feel angry with their employers and to make mistakes. In the Oxford study, 17 percent of respondents who said they felt overworked said they often made mistakes at work, compared with only 1 percent of those who said they did not feel overworked. So when I hear people brag that they haven’t had a vacation in five years, I’m seriously unimpressed. 

How to Go on Vacation

If you’re convinced that you’d better do yourself, your co-workers, and your family a favor by going on vacation, the next question is how are you going to do it. That might seem like a silly question, but seriously, some people tell me they take a vacation just to accomplish all the things they can’t do while they’re at work. That’s not a vacation! You don't get recharged, refreshed, and rebooted unless you actually get away from the office and into an environment that’s conducive to relaxation. Here are some tips:

• Leave for two weeks. If you only go for one week, your co-workers and staff will hold things for you “until you get back.” If you’re gone for two weeks, it’s more likely others will do it themselves since it can’t wait that long. It takes three days just to unwind and another three days just to ramp back up before returning. So challenge yourself to get bored on your vacation. Be gone long enough to ask, “What is today, anyway, Monday or Tuesday?”

• Limit or eliminate your contact. The objective here is to get a psychological break from work that will recharge your batteries. Don’t think you are oh-so-important that you have to tune into the office every day. You’re not really as indispensable as you think you are. If a bus hit you tomorrow, the work would still get done. And if you are that irreplaceable, I would point out you’re not developing your next replacement properly, so you could get a promotion. So get the right people to cover for you and forward your calls. Put an auto responder on your email that you’ll be gone until (x) time and so-and-so is available to respond to immediate needs. If you MUST be in touch, limit your time to set hours such as 8:00 to 10:00 AM, and then enjoy the rest of the day. If you spend your vacation worrying about clients, prospects, and computers, you aren’t really taking a vacation.

• Enjoy yourself. Go ahead and eat those desserts you would typically avoid. Spend money on things you wouldn’t normally buy. Stay out later and sleep in later than you normally would. Take the dinner boat cruise and take the water-skiing lessons. Buy souvenirs and clothing and treasures of the areas. Look at those expenditures as investments in your emotional health.

• Always have the next trip planned. Coming back from vacation is depressing. Try to allow for it with an extra day before you go back to work, because you might have the blues. I know when John and I return from our annual Hawaiian excursions, I’m always commenting, “This time last week I was on the beach.” Then plan another trip. Put a date on the calendar, because if you don’t, it won’t happen. Buy plane tickets and schedule around it. Start planning and getting excited.

When my three-year-old James is fussy, I tell him, “You’re grouchy. It’s time for you to take a nap!” Similarly, you might need to lovingly tell a colleague or a friend it’s time to take a break. If your significant other tells you to take a vacation, take it seriously and don’t shoot the messenger. Your friends and family may have a point, and your productivity and happiness depends on you listening.

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2004 Laura Stack, MBA, CSP. All rights reserved. Portions of this newsletter may be reprinted in your organization or association newsletter, provided the following credit line is present:

"Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is "The Productivity Pro"® and the author of Leave the Office Earlier. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or [email protected]."