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Vacation, No Vacation, or Work-ation?

Ah, it’s time to welcome those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Have you started planning your summer vacation? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. If this summer compares to last year’s, the chances for that relaxing get away are pretty slim.

When Adweek/Harris Poll surveyed people last July, they found that only two in five U.S. adults had taken or were planning to take a summer vacation in 2011. And—adding to the burdens of the already overworked—among Americans vacationing last summer, almost half (46%) said they would (or did) work on their vacation. That number included over a third who monitored emails (35%) and 22% who checked voicemails or occasionally took phone calls while on vacation. (2012 statistics are not yet available).

The survey also showed:

  •  Men are more likely than women to work during their summer vacation (54% vs. 37%).
  • Adults aged 35-44 are most likely to say they monitor emails (47%) vs. between 24% and 38% of other age groups.
  • Among those who bring a tablet computer on their summer vacation, a third said it made them more likely to do work while on vacation.

Use It or Lose It
According to another study, performed by Harris Interactive for JetBlue, about 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, with most leaving an average of 11 days on the table, or nearly 70% of their allotted time off. The survey also showed that while more than 60% of those with vacation days believed they deserved to take their time off, 39% reported having reservations about asking their boss for a vacation.

Expedia’s 2011 Vacation Deprivation Survey showed that Americans treat vacation as a luxury rather than a fact of life. Americans receive roughly half the Europeans' allotment of vacation time. In 2011, employed Americans earned 14 vacation days and took 12. In comparison, the French earned 30 vacation days, and took all 30.

While Expedia’s 2011 Vacation Deprivation Survey showed that Americans left only two days unused on average, considering that the average full-time worker earns $39,416 a year (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), CNN/Money calculated that as $34.3 billion worth of unused vacation time for the year.

Perhaps Americans lucky enough to have jobs figure they’re ahead of the game if they’ve taken even one vacation day, because  as CNN/Money points out, “Unlike most other developed countries, U.S. law doesn't require companies to offer paid vacation time to their employees.”

Some 2012 Data Is Available
While the studies cited here hadn’t yet been updated for 2012 by our “Moving Ahead” editorial deadline, one survey, by CareerBuilder, was released in June 2012. That nationwide survey—conducted from February 9 to March 2, 2012, showed that bosses are taking getaways more often than their workers. Eighty-one percent of managers have taken or plan to take vacation this year, compared to 65% of full-time employees.

CareerBuilder also found that vacations remain financially out of reach for many Americans. One in five workers (19%) said they can’t afford to go on vacation (down from 24% in 2011). An additional 12% of workers say they can afford vacations but have no plans to take one, consistent with past years. Additionally, 37% of managers say they expect their employees to check in with the office while on vacation (although most say only if the employee is involved in a big project or major issue).

Why You Should Take a Vacation
Business coach Tanveer Naseer reminds us why vacations are important: “In today’s challenging economic climate, it’s easy for us to fall into the belief that we need to sacrifice our free time for the sake of the greater good, or worse, succumb to the fear that taking a vacation will cast us in a negative light among our peers. We need our leaders and employees to bring their full efforts to the process of attaining the organization’s goals. The best way to ensure that is to encourage everyone in your organization to use their vacation time to step away from the challenges currently on their plate. They will gain a fresh perspective and with it, new ideas about how to most effectively attain these shared goals.”

Naseer believes managers should set an example by using their own vacation time and encouraging workers to take time off as well: “By reminding your team that their vacation time is a part of their overall remuneration—and more importantly, by allowing them to actually take this time off work—leaders can demonstrate to their employees that they understand the importance and necessity of having time to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

Tips for Spending Quality Time Away from the Office
So, what’s an overworked, vacation-yearning employee to do? Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations (www.crucialconversations.com) and co-founder of VitalSmarts, offers the following advice for taking well-deserved vacation time and for setting appropriate boundaries while away:

  • Ask for what you really want. If you understate the importance of your vacation, you can’t blame your boss for giving a lukewarm approval. If you fail to express your wants candidly, you are part of the problem.
  • Define: Vacation [vey-key-shuhn]. Talk about what it truly means to take time off. If you are required to take the office with you in the form of e-mails and conference calls, you never truly leave the office.
  • Be inflexibly supportive. When asking for time off, be clear about what is negotiable and what is not. If the timing of your vacation is flexible, say so. But if the amount of uninterrupted time you want off is not, make that clear as well. Be willing to do all you can for the boss and the company short of compromising vacation goals.
  • Maintain boundaries. After getting agreement to your vacation plans, be prepared for niggling encroachments. At the first sign of infringement, hold others accountable to the commitments they made, while being “inflexibly supportive” of their needs and concerns.

If all else fails, consider working for Internet film/TV subscription service Netflix, where employees never have to worry about taking too much time away from the office or leaving unused vacation days. The company no longer tracks vacation time. Employees may take as many days as they like, as long as their work is covered while they’re gone.

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.