You're watching TV and scrolling through Instagram when an advertisement for an idyllic vacation spot appears on the screen. Perhaps it's a beach utopia, a jungle paradise, a snowy reprieve or a cruise ship filled with laughing, carefree people. Or maybe you're simply thinking about that last mini excursion you took (has it been two years already?), or contemplating how glorious a staycation would be, allowing you to catch up on your personal life and put in quality time with the family.
You stop for a few blissful seconds and think to yourself, "Wouldn't that be nice?" You've even got plenty of vacation days saved up! The sweetness of it all lingers momentarily before melting away into frenzied visions of work piled up on your desk, a career you can't afford to put on temporary hold or a boss that you assume would be cranky if you went MIA for a week.
Sound familiar? That's the American norm. A recent study by Project: Time Off discovered that 54 percent of the more than 7,000 employees surveyed ended 2016 with unused vacation time, meaning Americans sacrificed a collective 662 million vacation days last year. Despite this, of the 54 percent who forfeited their deserved time off, 92 percent expressed that vacation was important to them.
"The biggest concern is workload, which is exacerbated by the fact that when you do take time off, you can see the work piling up in real-time on your phone," explains Katie Denis, senior director at Project: Time Off and author of the study.
"Beyond workload, the primary reasons people are skipping vacation show that they are overwhelmed and anxious about the optics of getting away. They feel no one else can do the work, that the pressures of increased responsibility make it harder to leave or that vacation somehow compromises dedication."
An additional contributing factor may be the fact that many of us are self-prescribed "work martyrs" who are addicted to our jobs.
"[Some employees] identify so strongly with their work that they are compelled to work all the time," says Dr. Marika Lindholm, a sociologist who specializes in helping people focus on well-being and self-care. "Increasing efficacy on the job provides feelings of self-worth that they don't get anywhere else because they are working all the time and it becomes an addictive cycle. It's up to employers to set the tone by encouraging employees to take time off and, of course, take time off themselves."
Dr. Lindholm says that signs of work addiction include not "feeling alive or worthy" unless you're working, losing sight of non-work related passions and hobbies, neglecting self-care rituals like exercising, working through meals and feeling anxious or guilty when you're not working. Your family and friends may even comment on your increased work load, and your relationships may suffer until a change is made.
Contrary to the internal dialogue playing inside employee's heads, further studies by Project: Time Off indicate that not using PTO does more harm than good in terms of career success. These work martyrs are 23 to 27 percent less likely to receive a promotion, and 78 to 84 percent less likely to receive a raise or bonus compared to those who do take their deserved time away.
"At a certain point, our productivity and energy suffers," notes Denis. "Work martyrs feel that they are sacrificing their vacation time in service to their jobs, but in reality, they are trading away opportunities to be better for their companies by skipping time off. Time off can be a fantastic way to incite innovation, and bringing the next great idea to your organization is hugely impactful. Great creative breakthroughs don't happen sitting at a desk."
Letting vacation days fall by the wayside also negatively impacts your health.
"The mental and physical benefits of taking time off work include improved sleep, a better headspace, more clarity and increased creativity," explains Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a New York City based psychologist. "By taking time off, you'll find a renewed sense of purpose, more energy to carry out tasks and in general, an overall sense of happiness."
It's one thing to understand that taking time off improves your reputation (and effectiveness) at work, and that it boosts your mental and physical health. But actually claiming those days is another story. Here are a few tips for minimizing the stress around using your hard-earned PTO.
1. Plan your time away
"The single-most effective step any employee can take is to plan their time off in advance and block the calendar," said Denis. "The details don't need to be worked out, but if the calendar is not blocked off, it's dramatically less likely to happen. From there, employees should talk with their managers about their plans. There is a lot of anxiety about making multiple requests up front, but managers who need to plan against company priorities will greatly appreciate the advanced notice."
2. Pad your vacation with an extra day off
Take an additional day off work before and/or after your vacation to catch up on personal and work-related tasks. This not only ensures you utilize an extra day that may otherwise go unused at the end of the year, but also helps you ease into, and out of, your vacation time. "Don't go straight from the plane to the office," said Dr. Smerling. "Give yourself an extra day to get settled in, organized, relaxed and clear-headed."
3. Take personal care days
You don't have to leave the country or the state to claim your vacation day. You don't even have to leave your house. If your body and mental state is urging you to take some time off, listen.
4. Avoid pileup anxiety by delegating
One of the biggest contributors to not taking vacation days is the fear of work piling up, which is heightened by the assumption that colleagues won't adequately fill your shoes. "We all like to think that we are irreplaceable and that without us things will fall apart, but it's unhealthy when we don't trust co-workers and have trouble sharing or delegating responsibilities," says Dr. Lindholm.
"The desire to have complete control undermines creative and productive collaboration with coworkers, and unwillingness to delegate tasks robs your coworkers or employees opportunities for growth." When you see that your colleagues are fully capable of covering for you while you're out of office, you'll feel more comfortable taking that much-needed time off.