With Labor Day behind us, the U.S. officially bids adieu to summer. Kids are back in school, lakeside cabins are shuttered, and the calendar is conspicuously devoid of long weekends. If you were lucky enough to steal a week or two away from work this summer to refresh and recharge—well done. Chances are you’re better rested, less resentful, and more creative than you were three months ago.
The physical and emotional benefits of taking a vacation are well-documented. From a mental health day spent binge-watching The Good Wife, to a week of fly fishing in the mountains, time away from work, works wonders. Yet despite what all those Facebook updates and Instagram feeds would have us believe, when it comes to vacation time, a lot of us are leaving a lot of hours on the table.
Despite what all those Facebook updates and Instagram feeds would have us believe, when it comes to vacation time, a lot of us are leaving a lot of hours on the table.
A recent study by Project: Time Off sums up the state of vacation in the U.S. grimly: “The majority of Americans are not using their hard-earned vacation.” The findings coin a new term, “the work martyr”—which is exactly what it sounds like. Somewhere along the way, not taking vacation—even paid vacation granted by your employer—became a sign of deep commitment to your job. “Too many American workers have subscribed to a philosophy that prizes hours worked over true productivity and a belief that not taking a break will reap greater professional success. However flawed, such thinking has taken hold in American workplaces.”
As with so many facets of today’s corporate culture, Millennial attitudes are shaping the new normal. Generation Y is entering the workforce in the midst of shifting perceptions of vacations, and these workers are most certainly contributing to the change. “Coming of age during an economic downturn has consequences,” cites the Project: Time Off study. “When Millennials landed jobs, they brought with them a strong desire to prove themselves, intensified by the often long and painful search that preceded their first day.”
One of the biggest factors working against taking vacations is guilt. A survey conducted by Alamo Rent A Car revealed that 59 percent of employed Millennials reported feeling “a sense of shame” for taking or just planning a vacation. Even workers who don’t neatly fit the description of a work martyr are affected when vacation guilt takes hold. If a manager never takes a week off to recharge—or replies to emails every day he’s in Hawaii—younger, less seasoned employees are likely to follow suit.
A Millennial who works in PR agrees: “There is definitely a sense of guilt in leaving on vacation. The guilt is mostly knowing all the work that needs to get done and knowing you’re not going to be the one to do it (adding stress to someone else) or you are going to be the one to do it, but it’s going to be on hold for some time.” This feeling of guilt, combined with the heavy workloads today’s professionals carry, means “Getting to vacation is always a process.”
The feeling of guilt, combined with the heavy workloads today’s professionals carry, means “Getting to vacation is always a process.”
Then there are the companies (more and more of them) that allow employees to take as much vacation as they need. So-called “unlimited” or “take what you need” policies can alleviate vacation guilt by personalizing the process, endeavoring to flex to unique employee needs versus forcing a one-size-fits-all model. (Most of these policies are in effect for director and above titles, where presumably a sense of duty, work obligations and peer pressure keep excessive vacations in check.) It can be a tricky policy to navigate, but given the right corporate culture, unlimited vacation can be an important piece of the work-life fit puzzle. It grants employees the freedom to use vacation or personal time when and where they need to, without having to “earn it” or build up a bank of PTO hours.
Graham David Hughes traveled to every single country in the world without ever getting on a plane. Listen on as he provides some fascinating insights into cultural norms and peculiarities from his many adventures around the globe.
A potential drawback? With no set limit of vacation hours mandated, there’s also no minimum number of vacation hours established. In the wrong company culture, and without management harassing employees to use up the vacation hours they’ve earned, work martyrdom can flourish. One tech-industry professional with experience with an “unlimited vacation” policy notes, “Conceptually I didn't like the no vacation, take as much as you like, policy because there is always work to do and it's hard to take the time. I felt a bit like I was abandoning the work, instead of the old three weeks per year policy where you feel like you've earned it.”
All vacations are not created equal
Workers who manage to wrangle vacation—whether a little or a lot—face additional hurdles because of how hard it is to fully disconnect. Figuring out how to make a vacation count is tough, and Millennials may be the most vacation-challenged generation to date. Whether these digital natives have difficulty unplugging till relaxed, or don’t even try, it’s clear that “vacation” is kind of a misnomer. 34 percent of Millennials responding to the Alamo Rent A Car survey said they worked every day of their recent vacations and consequently “felt less productive” upon return.
Yet there’s good news for professionals who can keep vacation guilt at bay and take the time they’re due. Experts agree that taking a vacation can actually enhance your career, providing you plan well for it and delegate critical projects. When you’re out of the office, your critical role in the organization is highlighted. Being missed for doing a job well is a good thing. And when you return, no doubt you’ll impress the hell out of your team with new ideas and solutions, dreamed up while you lay in a hammock, a world away from work.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.