The recession has employees running scared. What if you're lying on a Florida beach the next time the bosses huddle about staff cuts? You probably figure it's better to forego that winter tan to keep up office face time and the appearance of productivity.
According to a new survey by Right Management, the human resources consulting division of the staffing firm Manpower, 66 percent of employees failed to use up their vacation days last year. Right Management conducted the online poll of 667 people in December, asking, "Have you used all of your vacation time this year?" Only 34 percent answered yes.
Douglas Matthews, Right Management's president and chief operating officer, was surprised. "We thought it would be about 50 percent," he says.
There are several reasons for that. As everyone knows, layoffs hit record levels in 2009. According to Right Management's figures, companies used outplacement services to try to find work for the people they were letting go of 56 percent more in '09 than the year before. On Friday the Labor Department announced that employers had shed another 85,000 jobs in December. Since the recession started in December 2007 the economy has lost 2.7 million jobs.
Many workers are making do with less, pulling in their belts to withstand pay cuts and the job losses of relatives. "The cost of vacation is pretty high," Matthews notes. "Tons of people feel they don't have the discretionary spending to take vacation, so they just stay at work."
That's a very bad idea, experts say. "The research is clear that failing to take a vacation creates higher levels of stress and greater levels of disengagement at work," Matthews reports.
"It's silly to think that giving up vacation is going to make your colleagues think how important you are," says Connie Thanasoulis, a career services expert at the job search Web site Vault.com. "Take your vacation and let them miss you."
After all, you can never get back those days you didn't use — or the once-in-a-lifetime memories they might have produced.
"Vacations are underrated," agrees Joan Kane, a Manhattan psychologist who has worked as a therapist for 22 years. "People think they're fluff. I believe they're crucial." Beyond the obvious benefits of stress reduction, regeneration and rest, they satisfy a deep need to feel that you're in control of your own time.
"On vacation you have no boss to satisfy," Kane observes. "You're not under constant surveillance."
Vacation also promotes creative thinking, expands your cultural horizons and sharpens cognition, especially if you can travel to another country. "Traveling shifts us from the solipsistic way we operate every day," notes Kane. "It promotes a sense of well-being and gets you thinking in different ways. It can be life-altering."
Just do it.
© 2012 Forbes.com