Give Me a Break!

Americans should be using their vacation days.

Posted Jun 01, 2015

Having just returned from a vacation in Italy, I was reflecting on ways that I could bring the benefits of my time away back with me as I resume my regular schedule again. But as I prepared to write such a post, I was startled to find that a shockingly low number of Americans actually take advantage of their vacation days.

Take, for instance, the following statistics regarding vacation habits of Americans: based on polling, only 13 percent of Americans reported traveling abroad for a holiday in the last year, almost half didn’t take even one day off in the summer of 2014, a staggering 63 percent of Americans reported not traveling at all in the last year, and women reportedly take fewer vacation days than men (as reported by Skift, 2014-2015).

The Huffington Post reported a similar trend in January of this year with an aptly titled headline, “Why Too Many Americans Took Zero Vacation Days in 2014” (Weingus, 2015). In addition to reflecting on the statistics reported above, the article reveals the disturbing trend that workers with higher incomes took more vacation, as if only a privileged few should gain the benefits and restoration that comes with time away from the grind at work.

Moreover, the takeaway from such numbers reveals that despite the fact that the majority of American workers are underpaid, we are also overworked, not taking advantage of vacation days when we have them. Sadly, Americans are also under-traveled (this, of course, has huge implications for both the worldliness of Americans as well as our proclivity towards ethnocentrism—but alas, that is a separate post for another day).

Why should this matter? Well, in addition to improving mental health and wellbeing for workers when they have the benefit of taking vacation days, the bottom line of companies also tends to increase when workers take time off.

One study found, for instance, that in a sample of thousands of middle-aged males, “those who skipped vacations for five consecutive years were found to be 30 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took at least one week off each year” (as reported by Braunstein, 2012, para 4). Similar benefits have also been found on samples looking at traveling habits of women, with protective factors in both heart health and mental wellbeing for those who reported more regular vacations. Now of course, this type of research cannot determine cause and effect, but it suggests an important relationship between health and time away from work.

Given how stressful our lives have become, classic psychology tells us that time away from our regular environment can be restorative for both mind and body. However, it is the very stress of our culture today and the competitive and go-go-go environment here that oftentimes stops us from taking that much needed break from work and our regular personal lives. For instance, in looking at cross-cultural comparisons, the old stereotype of the jet-setting European holds up, as Braunstein (2012) reports:

In other countries, going on holiday is standard practice for maintaining health, family life and productivity. Guilt-ridden Americans, however, consider vacations a luxury. In fact, we are the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. By law, European countries get at least 20 days of paid vacation per year; some receive as many as 30. Australia and New Zealand each require employers to give at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off. (para 9)

So our reluctance to vacation may be practical depending on whether or not we even have paid time off from our jobs. But the proclivity to not vacation is so widespread in America that it also suggests an underlying cultural value—or in this case, a lack of valuing time off in this culture.

David Spevak, used with permission
Source: David Spevak, used with permission

A fellow PT blogger reflects on the many advantages that come from vacationing, from combating stress to altering our perspectives to restoring and reenergizing us when we transition back to our work and personal lives (Krauss Whitbourne, 2010). Interestingly, she also shares research that has identified that “family vacations contribute positively to family-bonding, communication and solidarity” (Krauss Whitbourne, 2010, para 7). In fact, vacations can be very restorative for marital and other romantic relationships.

The research in favor of vacations is staggering. Unfortunately, on a systemic level, from benefits on the job to cultural values regarding time off, Americans are receiving both explicit and implicit cues telling us to stay at work and at home. I encourage readers to defy those messages and take time away from the office and regular life, however short or long your life circumstances permit. For those of you who are thinking, “I just don’t have time!” I will leave you with this refrain: like the many beneficial habits we can develop in life (exercise, engaging in mindfulness practices like meditation) it is at those very moments when we think we don’t have the time or energy in our lives to do something that we can benefit from such activities the most.

Bon Voyage!

Braunstein, Glen. (2012, July 23). Want to stay Healthy? Go Ahead and Take a Vacation. Huffington Post: Los Angeles. Retrieved on June 1, 2015 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glenn-d-braunstein-md/taking-vacation_b_1688148.html

Krauss Whitbourne, S. (2010, June 22). The Importance of Vacation to our Physical and Mental Health. Psychology Today: Blogs. Retrieved on June 1 2015 from:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201006/the-importance-vacations-our-physical-and-mental-health

Skift, R.A. (2014-2015). Travel Habits of Americans: 42 Percent Didn’t Take Any Vacation Days in 2014. Skift: Destinations. Retrieved on June 1, 2015 from: http://skift.com/2015/01/05/travel-habits-of-americans-41-percent-didnt-take-any-vacation-days-in-2014/

Weingus, L. (2015, January 5). Why Too Many Americans Took ZERO Vacation Days in 2014. Huffington Post: the Third Metric. Retrieved on June 1, 2015 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/05/americans-vacation-days-2014_n_6419100.html

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2015