Image: Workaholic Americans could use a vacation
Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/10/2007 3:57:31 PM ET 2007-06-10T19:57:31

Alexa Hamill, who works in human resources for the Philadelphia office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, got a voice mail last May from a partner at her firm advising her to put in for vacation time. The summer was quickly approaching and Hamill had yet to schedule some time off.

She informed the partner that she’d figure it out, but she never did.

In June, the manager paid a visit to her office.

“He asked me to lay out my calendar going forward,” she says.

Even though the summer is the busiest time for her department, the two hashed out a compromise. She would take one of the slower weeks off but call in for a midweek meeting while on vacation.

Her getaway: a trip to the beach in nearby Ocean City, N.J., with her son. “I did relax and was able to recharge my batteries. It made me more effective at work.”

Few workers have a boss who would try that hard to make sure they got their earned vacation time, but what Hamill experienced is part of a small but growing trend in corporate America. Companies are beginning to realize the benefits of vacations for their weary workers — fewer sick days, smaller health care bills and a more motivated workforce.

Unfortunately, not all employers get this, and sometimes it’s the workers themselves that don’t get this, either. They have a perverted view that not taking time off and keeping their nose to the grindstone will advance their career, or keep their jobs from ending up on the chopping block.

But in fact, it could lead to burnout, emotional and physical illness, and end up jeopardizing their careers, their lives.

So take vacation, people!

“Taking a vacation is not a luxury — it’s a necessity,” says Kathleen Hall, founder of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. “If you don’t have the opportunity to relax and reflect you get stressed, and chronic stress is the driver of most diseases — heart disease, obesity, insomnia.”

Despite the repercussions, a growing number of Americans are tempting the stress gods by bypassing their time off even though they’ve earned it. A survey taken by the Conference Board last year before the summer season kicked into gear, found that only 39.8 percent of individuals planned to take a vacation within the next six months, a 28-year low.

A more recent study taken in April by recruiting firm Hudson, found that 56 percent of the work force does not take advantage of all their vacation time. And when they get away, 35 percent of managers check in with the office frequently, often daily; and 14 percent of non-managers do the same. One-quarter of the work force says their boss expects them to be accessible while on vacation.

“We’ve become a nation of workaholics,” says Jeff Pfeffer, Stanford University professor and the author of the forthcoming book "What They Were Thinking: Unconventional Wisdom about Management." “Part of it is a macho culture of ‘I can work more than you can. I don’t need sleep or rest.’ ”

Indeed, the United States is one of the only industrialized nations that does not require employers to provide their workers with vacation or sick time.

Ask yourself, he says, why pro football players play when they’re hurt, even though evidence shows it can shorten their careers. “It’s all this think-tough attitude. That you’re more loyal or dedicated if you forgo vacation.”

“Given how screwed up the American workplace is today, giving up your earned time might get you kudos from some managers," he acknowledges. But it won’t help workers in the long run, he adds.

If your productivity declines, you won’t get raises or promotions, and you could end up losing your job. This becomes even more critical when your job involves creative or critical thought, experts says.

A good rest may even bring career advancement.

“Your vacation just might be the key to identifying the new product or strategy you’ve been struggling with for months,” says Noah Blumenthal, a consultant and author of "You’re Addicted to You: Why It’s So Hard to Change and What You Can Do About It."

For those who do pack their bags, a long weekend won’t really cut it.

"It is important for people to take their vacations — meaning vacations of a week or two long. Taking a day or two doesn't do as much good," explains Wallace Huffman, economics professor at Iowa State University. "Productivity could increase by up to 60 percent for employees in the month or two following a good vacation."

And that doesn’t mean taking along a suitcase full of electronic gadgets that keep you connected to the office or plant. You have to disconnect in order to unwind. Minimize the use of cell phones, laptops and PDAs if you want all the benefits of relaxation, Huffman adds.

“In order to have a successful long-term career, you need to manage your career, plan to take time off regularly to allow your body to regenerate so not to suffer from burnout, exhaustion, depression,” he advises. “This becomes even more important as people live longer.”

Workplace legal expert Robin Bond offered these vacation tips:

  • Inform others in advance. Let co-workers and clients know of your vacation time as soon as you plan it, and send a reminder of your absence as the dates approach. Advise clients whom they can contact when you are away.
  • Have a buddy system in place. Get projects to a good stopping place before you leave, and ask a trusted colleague to serve as a backup in case any urgent problems arise in your absence. Be sure to return the favor.
  • Schedule around busy business cycles.
  • And relax!

We need to start thinking as a nation that leisure time is why we all work in the first place. No?

Maybe you’re one of those poor souls who don’t even get time off. Pfeffer’s advice if you are in this position, or if you are pressured not to take allotted time: “Find another job.” Don’t hang around waiting for your employer to become enlightened about the benefits of time off, he stresses.

If you get tons of time off at your job and are still not taking it, you may have self-esteem issues, he suspects. Some workers believe that their company will fall apart if they’re not there, and managers can play into that. The bottom line, Pfeffer says, is that it’s all just an “ego trip.”

“You have to say to yourself, ‘I can go away for a week or two, and everything will be fine.’ ”

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