Help for the Vacation-Deprived

Experts explain why many Americans aren't taking advantage of the vacation time they're entitled to.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 25, 2008
8 min read

Do you know where your vacation days are? If you're like many Americans, you've allowed unused time off to either collect dust in your employer's file cabinet, to roll over until next year, or to disappear into a black hole.

Or you might have already made your escape earlier in the year, but you squandered some of it checking work email, voicemail, or fielding job-related questions.

The good news is that you've got plenty of company. A 2006 survey revealed that 23% of Americans have checked work email or voice mail while on vacation. The survey also showed that one-third of U.S. adults do not always take all their vacation days.

The bad news: You join many hardworking and vacation-deprived Americans who experience burnout, reduced productivity, diminished creativity, failed relationships, stress, or stress-related ailments such as depression, heart disease, or stomachulcers.

In the U.S. the growing demand for more work hours and the corresponding loss of leisure time in the last two decades is a big crisis, says John Weaver, PsyD, a psychologist and owner of Psychology for Business, a workplace consulting firm based in Brookfield, Wis.

"People are staying at work longer to get ahead more," says Weaver. "To a large degree, there's been an expectation by business owners that this is, in fact, the way that it should be, rather than looking at it and saying that this is somehow out of balance."

Weaver and a few other mental healthmental health, travel, and career experts talked with WebMD, sharing their thoughts about the state of work and vacation time in the U.S. They explained the consequences of having so little time off and gave eight tips for workers in need of a break.

Compared with other industrialized nations, the U.S. is known to be stingy with vacation time for workers. According to, Americans receive an average of 14 vacation days per year, while the citizens of Canada get 19 days, Great Britain 24, France 39, Germany 27, and Australia 17.

To make things worse, the Expedia survey found that, on average, Americans did not use four days of their vacation time, giving an estimated $76 billion back to their employers.

The top three reasons why survey respondents did not fully use vacation days were as follows:

  • They needed to schedule vacation time in advance (14%)
  • They were too busy at work to get away (11%)
  • They got money back for unused vacation days (10%)

Another analysis showed other reasons for reluctance to take time off. A 2006 survey reported that 16% of workers feel guilty about missing work while on vacation, and 7% actually fear that time off could lead to unemployment.

Technological advances, the transient job market, competition, and globalization have made people seem dispensable in today's corporate world. Weaver says people want to work more in order to prove their effectiveness.

Fear and a strong cultural focus on work are largely responsible for behavior in regard to their job and leisure time, says Helen Friedman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in St. Louis. "Fear is the motivator -- fear of falling behind in work, fear of being replaced if you don't give 110%," she says. "As a culture, we've evolved to value doing rather than being."

In this country, just being means being lazy as there's no time to just be, Friedman adds. The emphasis is less on character and personality, but more on the job at hand. As an example, upon meeting, one of the first things people ask each other is: "What do you do?"

Halcyone Bohen, PhD, a psychologist in independent practice in Washington, D.C., echoes Friedman's view. "In our culture, work is so highly valued that people are rewarded for it from preschool on, for doing 'a good job,'" she says. "Less value is often put on play and relaxation."

The American focus on productivity is not necessarily all bad as it can give people great satisfaction and fulfillment. Yet it is not the sole element to happiness.

The emphasis on productivity "can be overdone, and can skew people from just being comfortable being with themselves, and being alright without creating a product," says Bohen.

As a result, when they do take a vacation, some people feel restless in the unstructured time and don't know what to do with themselves or others. So they end up checking in with work, because they do not want to lose control of a work project, or they and their boss are so used to them being available all the time. They may also work to avoid facing family issues.

According to a 2006 survey, 33% of men and 25% of women expected to work while on vacation.

Vacation is a time for renewal. In work, we are often called to think. Sometimes, it's good to give our brains a rest. Without a break, we may not be able to perform up to our potential. This can be a problem, not only for the employee, but for the employer as well.

"The main benefit of vacation is for the worker to come back energized," says Weaver. "If they haven't had a break, then they're not coming back with new energy. They haven't had a chance to step back and get perspective, and to come back with renewed enthusiasm."

Long working hours without a break, insecurity about one's job, and other work-related issues can lead to burnout and stress. Humans can usually adapt to pressure, but not for a limitless amount of time. At some point, working without a true break can cause problems.

"There's the managerial problem of retaining good workers and having them loyal to the firm while they're there," says David Maume, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati. He says burnout can also affect employees' productivity, creativity, and effectiveness.

In addition, high levels of stress are likely to be precursors to depression, which can hit both the employer and employee's pocketbook. Weaver places the direct cost of depression to the workplace at $79 billion.

Even people who manage to remain productive at work can have problems. If they're always at work, then they're not with their family and friends. If they're working while on vacation, for the time that they're on the job, they're not really present.

"You can't be in two places at once," says Friedman, who notes how common it is to hear stories about people who don't know their parents very much because they were always working.

Friedman adds that an unbalanced emphasis on work can strain family and social life: "When you come up for air, you may see that you're alone, or that your relationships have gone on without you."

Here are recommendations from mental health, travel, and career experts on how to improve your work-vacation balance:

Where in your life did your idea of productivity come from? With this information, you can make choices. "You may find out that your idea of being productive came from an unhappy parent who worked overtime because they were depressed, and if they didn't work overtime, they wouldn't have enough money to support a family," says Bohen. "By figuring out where the message came from, you can decide if it's a reliable source in terms of what you want in your life."

People usually make travel plans in advance but forget to prepare co-workers for their time off. Michael Erwin, a senior career adviser at, suggests letting colleagues know about your upcoming absence so that there are no surprises when you leave. Make sure there are people around who can cover your calls and other responsibilities. Keep people in the loop on what you're working on, and try not to take on projects that will require your presence during vacation.

Be honest and straightforward about your need for time away from work, and share how it can benefit the company. You can say something like, "I need downtime so that when I come in here, I can really do a good job and I can really give you my focus," says Friedman.

Will the office truly fall apart if you're not there? Will you really be fired if you take time off? It is important to have a balance, says Friedman, and to neither underinflate nor overinflate your significance at work. If you're not sure where you stand, sit down with your superior and co-workers, and ask them.

If you absolutely must work during vacation, figure out a schedule that will limit your connectivity to work. Make sure it is a set time -- say, for a half-hour at 9 a.m. When you are finished, Erwin recommends leaving the BlackBerry, cell phone, or laptop at the hotel.

Limits need not be set just during vacation. It's important to communicate what people can expect of you during the regular workweek. If you are normally available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is difficult for both you and colleagues to shift gears when you take time off. Discuss when people can expect to hear from you, and make sure they and you respect the boundaries.

A satisfying home life can help a person approach work with energy and enthusiasm. Having someone support, appreciate, and admire you outside of the office can help give you a boost on the job. "Relationships need to be nurtured for both a personal sense of satisfaction, and for the ability to function on a high professional level," says Weaver.

While it is ideal to have a full week or two off from work, it may not always be feasible, and there's still the rest of the year to deal with. Weekend getaways are also good for rejuvenation. So is an hour to yourself during lunchtime or a few hours on weeknights. When it comes to forming family and social bonds during your time off, it's really about spending quality time. Friedman suggests, "Clear an hour to read to each other, or to go to the park to look at a sunset."