While many countries celebrate the health benefits of generous vacation policies, American workers are stuck with less paid time off and work environments that make it difficult to truly unplug.

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If you don’t take all the vacation time you’re allotted, you’re not alone.

If you work while you’re on vacation, you’re like a lot of other people in the workforce.

If you’re stressed when you return to the office, there are a number of reasons for that.

There seems to be no question that the United States has an unhealthy “vacation culture.”

It ranges from how much time off we’re given, to how much vacation we actually take, to how we act while we are away from our jobs.

Americans simply don’t take enough vacation time, and when we do, we don’t take full advantage of it.

And that’s too bad.

Experts say there are a number of health benefits to enjoying a vacation… for both the employee and the employer.

“It gives you a chance to relax and recharge and clear your head,” said Alison Sullivan, a career trend expert at the website Glassdoor. “Vacations reduce stress that can build up when you are working, working, working.”

“People do better at work if they take time off, rest, refresh and get away from the daily grind,” added Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of the book “Dying for a Paycheck.”

“If they don’t take vacations, employees are less productive, less creative, and think less outside the box,” noted Ken Yeager, PhD, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

That stress can produce some serious consequences.

A 1992 study that tracked workers for 20 years concluded that men who didn’t take vacations were 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack. For women, it was a 50 percent greater risk.

“Stress, we know, is bad for our health,” says Pfeffer.

So, with all this evidence, why don’t we leap at the chance to go on vacation?

Our vacation culture

The lack of vacation time is not only part of America’s business culture.

It’s also part of our laws.

The United Kingdom mandates that companies provide at least 28 days of vacation to their employees, according to the official UK government website.

Other countries such as Sweden and Austria require a minimum of 25 days.

Australia insists on 20 days, Mexico mandates 6 days, and China requires 5 days.

The U.S. government does not require companies to provide any vacation days. That’s right. Zero.

A lot of U.S. companies apparently take advantage of this lack of legislation, too.

A 2013 study estimated that almost one in four American workers have no paid vacation time.

Even workers who are given vacation days don’t seem to take them.

A 2016 study by Project: Time Off indicated that U.S. workers took an average of 21 days of vacation in May 1996. That fell to 16 days in March 2016.

In fact, the average American worker takes only about half of their allotted vacation time, according to an article published on Inc.com.

And even when we’re on the beach or in the mountains, we don’t completely unplug.

Research indicates that 60 percent of employees do some work while they’re on vacation. In addition, 25 percent say they’re contacted by a co-worker during their time off, and 20 percent say a supervisor has contacted them, according to the Inc.com article.

These statistics were backed up by an online survey conducted in July 2018 by Healthline.

Of the 1,245 people who responded to the survey, 62 percent said they sneak in some work while on vacation.

About 44 percent said they take the vacation time allotted to them, but 42 percent said they take fewer vacation days than they actually have.

In all, 55 percent of respondents said they take 10 days or less of vacation a year.

That may be because 42 percent said their companies offer 10 days or less of vacation.

And that may be why 57 percent said they think their employer should grant them more vacation time.

So, why don’t people take vacation, and why do they work when they’re supposed to be relaxing.

There appears to be a number of reasons.

About 28 percent of respondents in the Healthline survey said they worked on vacation to avoid being overwhelmed when they returned to the office.

Another 17 percent chalked it up to personal anxiety.

Another 15 percent said it’s part of their company culture to stay in touch while they’re away.

About 11 percent said their boss requires them to respond to calls and emails on vacation.

And 10 percent said they felt it would negatively impact their work if they completely ignored their responsibilities while on vacation.

Then, there’s the fear that someone will take their place while they’re gone.

“People are afraid others will take a run at their job while they’re away,” Yeager told Healthline.

Pfeffer adds that there’s also this feeling that skipping vacation can boost your status in the eyes of your employer.

“Employees want to distinguish themselves to their employer by always being there,” he told Healthline.

Pfeffer adds that there may be some truth there. He said research has shown that people who work more hours do garner higher salaries, for instance.

“There is pressure from some companies for workers not to take vacation,” he said.

All this doesn’t bode well for employees who just can’t seem to completely disconnect.

“There comes a point in time when their identity is their work,” said Yeager. “When they go on vacation, they don’t enjoy it.”

Sullivan said it’s important for employees to unplug and then feel comfortable when they return.

“If you don’t, then you’re not fully stepping away,” she told Healthline.

The health benefits of vacations

Vacations are more than just a change of scenery.

Experts say the break from work provides benefits to both your physical and mental health.

The Inc.com article lists four major health benefits to taking a proper vacation.

The first is stress reduction. The article cites several studies, one of which notes that taking a vacation removes people from activities that they associate with stress and anxiety. Other research indicates the stress reduction extends beyond the vacation itself, lasting into the initial return to work. And other studies have found vacationers have fewer physical ailments such as headaches and backaches.

The second benefit is cardiovascular health. Studies show an increased risk of heart attack, even for people who skip just one year of vacation.

The third is improved productivity. Researchers say vacations help employees focus when they return to work, allowing them to get more work done in a shorter amount of time. A study done by Ernst & Young concluded that for every 10 hours of vacation time, employees’ year-end performance improved by 8 percent. Another study reported that people who take vacations are less likely to leave a company.

The fourth is better sleep. Researchers say disrupted sleep is a serious problem for employees who have too much on their minds. Vacations, they say, help people reset their sleep patterns.

Experts say you can’t overestimate the importance of these benefits.

“Time off makes employees more productive and excited to come to work,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan’s company puts its money where its mouth is.

Glassdoor is one of at least a dozen U.S. firms that gives employees unlimited paid time off (PTO) during the year.

Sullivan said there are parameters. Managers must still approve PTO breaks, and productivity is measured.

She adds their employees don’t abuse the system. In fact, Glassdoor still has to remind some workers to use vacation time.

“We encourage people to have work-life balance,” Sullivan said. “It tells them we not only value your work, we value who you are.”

Another company that provides unlimited paid time off is General Electric.

Stacey Hoin, senior human resources leader at GE Capital, said employees still coordinate vacation time with their manager. Their team then works together to “ensure coverage in someone’s absence.”

She said no employee has abused the program since it began two years ago.

“This is about trust. We trust our employees to do the right thing,” Hoin told Healthline.

Hoin said she encourages GE employees to take adequate vacation time and not just to run errands, keep up on housework, and go to doctor appointments.

“I instead try to encourage my team members to take time that is truly dedicated to themselves and their well-being because that is where they’ll get the most benefit —mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically,” she said.

The results, she said, are noticeable.

“When people take time off to rest, relax, and reflect, they come back to work with a renewed energy,” Hoin said. “I believe it makes them more impactful in their roles.”

And General Electric benefits, too.

There is a cost savings to GE from not having to pay out unused vacation,” Hoin said. “However, the bigger benefits, in my book, are employees who embrace a more empowered, trusting culture, with the flexibility to take time off when they need it.”

How to plan a vacation

It’s not just taking time off that matters.

It’s also how you spend that time away from the office.

There are a number of tips to help you have a good vacation.

It begins before you even depart on your well-earned break.

A 2017 Time magazine story stated that a poorly planned vacation can lead to even more stress upon your return.

So, the first step is to plan out your vacation.

Sullivan suggests making plans as soon as possible so you have something to look forward to and you don’t have to rush through details in the days before your trip.

Yeager added there are some important things you can do at work as part of that planning.

The first is to make sure your regular tasks are assigned to other people in the workplace. That way you don’t worry about them.

He also recommends leaving a clear email message reply for people who do contact you while you’re away.

State the days you’ll be gone and who they can contact in your absence. Yeager even suggests saying you won’t have access to email while you’re away… even if you do.

“There is nothing more important than preplanning,” he said.

Pfeffer is a firm believer in completely unplugging from the job while you’re away.

“Leave the electronics at home and don’t check your damn email,” he said.

Pfeffer notes that people tend to figure out problems if they email you and get a bounce-back message that you’re on vacation.

“A lot of things we think are urgent really aren’t,” he said.

Yeager agrees it’s better not to check your email during your vacation, but if that makes you feel anxious, then set aside 30 minutes every morning to clean out your inbox. After that, don’t log in again.

“It’s up to each individual to figure out what works for them,” he said.

Experts also recommend keeping your vacation plans as simple as possible. Rushing through airports and trying to find a difficult-to-locate establishment might not provide you with the relaxation you need.

The experts also say taking photos and videos is a good way to enjoy the vacation and also provide you with fond memories when you do return to work.

Yeager said all these steps will help you become more productive and happier back at the job.

He explains that your brain can lose creativity if it doesn’t get any breaks from the same daily activities.

“The pathways of the brain become static if there is too much routine,” he said.

Sullivan said all this is why Glassdoor reminds its employees to take their vacation time.

“We encourage people to obtain a healthy work-life balance,” she said.

Pfeffer offers a simple correlation.

“It’s important to take breaks during your work day,” he noted, “but taking breaks during the year is important, too.”

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