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Why we're still afraid to take vacation


A friend of mine has no vacation plans this summer. She told me she isn't even going to use all her vacation days.

I told her she's crazy, that she's entitled to take the days off that she has earned. But she explained to me that she's afraid to use them all because her consulting firm recently had layoffs.

Guess what? She's not alone in her fear.

Americans still are leaving millions of vacations days unused. I thought this was a trend that was changing. I thought that workers were so burned out that they were FINALLY going to take some time off this summer. But I underestimated how broke and afraid Americans are with the economy still sputtering. 

Apparently, we're still afraid that if we leave for a week our bosses might decide they could get along fine without us. We're afraid of returning to so much backlogged work that we find it's actually less stressful to stay in the office and get it done. Lastly, we're afraid to spend the money when our chances of getting raises remain slim and our bank accounts are drained. We've grown accustomed to taking off a day here or there, rather than a week at a time.

According to a recent study by Harris Interactive, an Internet-based market research firm, 57 percent of Americans ended 2011 with unused vacation time, failing to take, on average, 11 of their allotted days off — or 70 percent of what they’d rightfully earned. Other national surveys have calculated that as many as 66 percent of us keep working when we could be kicking back somewhere, leaving unused a total of 459 million vacation days.

At a recent event I attended, an executive recruiter asked me if I thought workers were still taking sabbaticals or year-long leaves. He argued that service professionals need long periods of time off because the nature of their business has them on call 24/7 and the stress can lead to health issues. I suggested rather than sabbatical, they start by taking a real vacation.

If you are afraid of taking vacation, you should be more fearful of not taking vacation.  Avatar HR Solutions Inc. researched some of the reasons employees leave jobs. While pay and career advancement are common among them, about 40 percent of employees left because they felt overworked, a lack of work/life balance or too much job stress. Basically, they needed a vacation!

Kevin Sheridan, author of "Building a Magnetic Culture" and an expert on employee engagement told columnist Rex Huppke: "I'm a huge believer in the employer nudging employees toward time off, encouraging better balance in their work/family life. There is a proven linkage to new ideas and time off, to better performance."

I asked a few managers I know whether taking vacation time made a difference in their view of an employee. "Would you be more likely to let go of an employee if they took a week's vacation and all went well without them?" I wanted to know. The answer most often was this: "Not if the employee proved his worth on a regular basis."

So why is it that we're still so afraid of looking like a slacker? Would your job or your client really be at risk if you took a week off?