Career Coach: Why you should take your vacation days

  • Getting out of the office and clearing our heads actually provides a number of benefits. A well-planned vacation provides good return on investment for your energy and outlook toward work.

    Getting out of the office and clearing our heads actually provides a number of benefits. A well-planned vacation provides good return on investment for your energy and outlook toward work.

Posted1/1/2017 7:14 AM

On a recent morning, the hallways of my office were basically empty. The colleague who came in to meet with me at 8 a.m. remarked, "Traffic was light this morning." Yes, it seems as if everyone is on vacation -- except for me. However, looking at the statistics, that may not be the case.

Americans have fairly negative attitudes about vacation. We rate ourselves as the highest on being "vacation deprived," although the numbers show that South Koreans actually fare the worst when it comes to the amount of time taken off. Although the average American has 15 days of vacation, we only take 12. The reasons why range from fear of getting laid off to the guilt that we feel from missing work.


We also tend to think that technology gives us more freedom to work when and where we want. Turns out, we're actually just spending more time working. The portable office of our phone and laptop means not only that we can work from anywhere, but that we do work from anywhere, and all the time.

But it shouldn't be that way.

There are measurable benefits to taking vacation

Getting out of the office and clearing our heads actually provides a number of benefits. A well-planned vacation provides good return on investment for your energy and outlook toward work. There are measurable benefits as well. Employees who take 10 or more vacation days were 65.4 percent more likely to receive a raise or bonus during a period of three years. And over 90 percent of managers say that they think it's important for employees to take vacation and encourage their employees to do so -- even if they themselves often don't.

Happiness is linked to higher productivity and more sales at work. Overwork isn't good for us or for the business. According to some research, there is a 10-15 percent loss in efficiency and more disruptions in work for 50- and 60-hour workweeks, at least on major industrial projects. For knowledge work, measuring productivity can be difficult, but many entrepreneurs now tout the benefits of working less and getting more sleep, from Tim Ferris's, "Four-Hour Work Week," to Ariana Huffington's, "The Sleep Revolution."

There's a financial cost to not taking vacation as well -- not to your company, but to you. In 2015, Americans' unused vacation time added up to 658 million days, which adds up to $272 billion left on the table. Stop working for free. Take those vacation days.

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What kind of example are you setting?

Senior managers are the worst offenders: A full two-thirds of senior managers didn't use all of their vacation days last year. Reasons cited include fear of returning to a mountain of work, the feeling that they are "indispensable," and feeling that it's harder to take time off now that they're at a higher level in the company. This sends the signal to lower level employees that they, too, should stay in the office.

Instead, take a tip from a close friend of mine. A busy consultant with two children, she supervises a sizable team. When she sees that one of them has not used their paid time off, she calls them into her office. "Go on vacation," she tells them. Even if it's just a few days off with your children, the break from work can be refreshing.

Taking vacation and truly disconnecting from work isn't just a good example for our colleagues and subordinates. In the landmark book, "Ask the Children," Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute interviews more than 1,000 children about their attitudes toward their parents and work. One message that these children have for their parents is to spend both "focused" and "hang-out" time with them. Focused time corresponds to the often lauded "quality time" where parents plan specific activities to do with their children, while hang out time can be just "being together" while focused on separate activities, such as reading, chores, or ... sitting by the beach. If you want your children to take vacation when they are in the workforce, set the example by planning a fun trip with them.

A colleague of mine had his son plan a trip for them each summer while he was in middle school. One year they visited baseball parks all around the country, driving from place to place. Not only was the trip a great bonding experience for father and son, but his son planned the trip, which uses important skills he might not have learned in school.


Here's how to maximize your vacation time:

• Plan at least a month in advance. For many of us, the anticipation and planning for a vacation is half the fun. It gives us psychological benefits. In our family, we know that with four children under the age of six we may not be taking a big trip anytime soon. (I balk at the thought of paying for six airplane tickets). However, my husband and I have a mental list of places we'd like to go and why. In moments when we've been kept up all night by our twins or are placing another dinner in front of children who are refusing to eat it, it's nice to think about a warm beach we might eventually visit.

• Visit friends and family. We are lucky to have friends who have ended up in interesting locations for work or love. Our last big trip, with two children in tow, was to Copenhagen and Oslo. In both cases, we were able to stay with friends and they had children the same age as ours, making for socializing for us and playdates for the children. Even if we can't bunk with friends, for our future trips we've tried to get in touch with people who have lived in those places to get the inside scoop. Getting advice from people "in the know" makes the excursion less stressful.

• Go far away. The further from home we get, the more we seem to forget our worries and enjoy the experience. For my family, it's all about comparing the stress level of leaving the house to the expected benefit. With four children in carseats, even going to the park can be stressful, so if we're going somewhere it should really be worth it. Travel for holidays might be to nearby family members, but for the big, once-every-few-years trips, we think big.

• Plan so work doesn't pile up in your absence. For most managers, the primary reason they don't take vacation is because of their fear that work will pile up in their absence. There are several ways to address this. Planning your vacation during a quiet time is essential. Next, make a checklist a few weeks before you leave so you can spread out the prep work and not stay in the office hours late before you leave. In addition to the checklist, contact your major clients and leave a detailed contact list with a team member. Finally, schedule a low-key day without meetings the day you come back. You can spend that time catching up on your backlog.

The new year is almost here. Many of you have "use-it-or-lose-it" vacation time -- about 75 percent of my friends who responded to my query on Facebook did. (I know, very scientific.) If you ended up with too many days in the "lose-it" column this year, look at next year's calendar now. What days do you know are professional development days or holidays for your children? Instead of sticking them in a day camp or arranging for baby-sitting, would those be good times to take a trip with the family? Is there a family member far away whom you haven't seen in awhile, and might be willing to host? Do you have unused airline miles? Planning for the future will be the best way to make sure that those days go into the "use-it" column next year. Consider, too, that you're setting an example for your colleagues, your subordinates, and your family.


Nicole Coomber is a lecturer in management and organization for the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and mother to four boys. She writes about managing parenthood and work at

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