A new survey finds that Americans take only about half of the vacation time they’re entitled to, and about three in five work on their vacation.
Given how technology has blurred the line between work and home even as wages have stagnated, you'd think the American workforce would be chomping at the bit to take advantage of one benefit we still do have and go lie on a beach somewhere (or even on a chaise lounge in the backyard). But we're reluctant to do so for a number of reasons, says Dayna Fellows, president of WorkLife Performance, Inc.
"In my experience, people aren’t taking fewer vacations because of management resistance, but rather because they are building habits of more and more work, fewer boundaries between work and home… and growing workloads with an uneasy undercurrent of job security," she says.
Jobs website Glassdoor.com says we take, on average, just 51% of our vacation, and 40% of us have taken only a quarter of our allotted vacation in the past year.
That's a tough atmosphere to work in every day, which is all the more reason to get away from it for a little while. "There is a tendency to feel like you always have to be connected," says Chris Boyce, CEO of wellness program provider Virgin Pulse. "But getting rest and a break is important for your well being, so take advantage of the time."
Begin planning early. "Start way ahead of time," says Glassdoor career and workplace expert, Rusty Rueff. "As far in advance as you can pre-plan, get on the calendar with the time off you want."
"Anticipate periods when lots of folks will be asking for time off, and competition for approval is greatest," Fellows says. If you can earn a track record of holding down the fort when other people want to take off, you'll be making it easier for your boss to say "yes" to your vacation request at other times of the year, she says.
Know your business cycle. Every workplace has a busy time of year, Fellows points out, and it's best to avoid trying to take your vacation then. "Be aware of periods when, by cycle or season or event, the boss is more likely to want you to be present," she says.
Request rather than demand time off. The conversation will go a lot smoother if you ask your boss to take some vacation time rather than demanding it, Rueff says. Just by phrasing it as a question — "I'd like to take the first week of June off. Would that work?" — you make the conversation a dialogue rather than a one-way street.
"Be prepared to discuss all the great things you have done at the office lately whether it’s training a new employee, increasing sales of your new product or staying a few extra hours to make sure that client deliverable is ready to go," Boyce says. "Then suggest that a break from the office would be a great way for you to recharge your batteries."
Communicate with everybody before you go. What you want is a "360-degree interaction chart," Rueff says. In other words, don't just talk to your boss about your vacation plans before you go. "You should also be having conversations with your peers," he says. "Ask, 'What can I do before I leave that won’t leave you guys in the lurch?' When you leave the office, you don’t want any stress." If you're responsible for supervising any other employees, make sure they have what they need to work while you're away so your vacation doesn't turn into an excuse for them to goof off.
Divide projects into before and after. Ideally, you'd be able to finish up all your tasks before you go — but there are only so many hours in the day, and you don't want to spend the first two days of your vacation too exhausted to enjoy it. So — again, after talking to your boss and co-workers — figure out what needs to be done beforehand and what can go on the back burner until you return. For work in the "after" pile along with any ongoing projects, Fellows suggests leaving your colleagues with a kind of cheat sheet. "Keep a transition book that tells someone the basics of keeping up with your job, or a 'dashboard' where, at any time, someone could see the status of each of your projects and assignments," she says.
Delegate judiciously. "If you’re going to delegate, that has to be in the spirit of cooperation," Rueff says. "If you’re going to do half your work and ask others to fill in, be prepared to do the same for them." And make sure your boss knows who's pinch-hitting for you so any questions that arise in your absence are directed to them rather than you.
Go ahead and check email — but be smart about it. Glassdoor’s survey found that about a quarter of workers are contacted by a colleague during their vacation. Plenty of experts say you should take a "digital vacation" and stay away from work email, but most of us are going to ignore that advice. After all, we're using the same device to take pictures, upload to social media — that work inbox is right there, and it's too tempting just to give it a quick peek. Plus, some people would rather carve out time during a getaway than come back to an inbox overflowing with hundreds of unread messages.
To keep from getting sucked into endless back-and-forth with co-workers, Rueff suggests only checking and responding to emails outside of business hours. If you reply in the middle of the day, you're likely to hear back before you've finished going through your inbox, and you'll be snared in a virtual conversation. If you're visiting a place a few time zones away from your job, this is even easier.