Taking Time Off Just Makes Sense

Everyone wants time off from work, right? So why doesn’t everyone take it?
That’s the question many workforce observers are asking in the wake of a recent poll conducted by global workplace consultancy Right Management, showing that 69% of all workers surveyed do not take all their vacation time at work (see story, page 24). And it’s not a recent phenomenon; the firm’s previous surveys, in 2011 and 2012, showed a nearly identical figure of 70%. So we suppose the latest results are an improvement.
If so, they’re not much of one.
“Not taking time off regularly can lead to serious health problems,” notes Timi Gustafson, a registered dietitian, author, and blogger. “The results are comparable to chronic stress, when there is no reprieve not just from one’s workload but also from repetitive routines.”
Matt Norquist, general manager at Right Management, says that kind of health impact makes vacation essentially a productivity issue for businesses. In other words, it’s not just employees who benefit from vacations, but also their companies, because their workers are happier and more productive on the job when they’re occasionally able to step away from it.
And it’s not just mental health at stake; chronic stress takes its toll on the body’s ability to resist infections, maintain vital functions, and even avoid injuries, noted Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of Psychology at UMass Amherst.
“When you’re stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you’re more likely to have an accident,” she writes in Psychology Today. “Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way.”
In addition, she notes, “not only do you become more irritable, depressed, and anxious, but your memory will become worse, and you’ll make poorer decisions. You’ll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely, and depressed.”
Not exactly a recipe for success on the job — or a particularly pleasant workplace.
So why are many employees loath — or unable — to use the vacation time they’ve earned? Norquist suggests that working non-stop is considered a sort of ‘badge of honor’ in today’s hyper-competitive work world, while others simply feel they can’t get away, with staffs reduced and individual work loads increased in the wake of the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, a survey conducted for travel website Hotwire reveals that a lack of time and money have dissuaded many Americans from going away on vacation, so many just keep working, some banking more time than they’ll ever use. And even employees who do decide to get away often stay connected to their jobs through e-mail and smartphones — and never enjoy the full wellness benefits of completely disengaging from their careers for a time.
Recognizing the benefits of happy, de-stressed employees, some companies have taken steps like making a minimum number of vacation days mandatory, or forbidding workers to use their work e-mail or remote devices to stay on the clock in any way. Others, like MassMutual in Springfield, simply strive to create a culture where employees — and their managers — recognize the myriad benefits of taking a break.
“We don’t believe in making it mandatory,” said Richard Goldstein, MassMutual’s vice president of Benefits, adding quickly that, “as with anything in life, it’s all about balance.”
Let’s hope that philosophy of work-life balance creeps into more workplaces in Western Mass. in 2014. After all, a healthy economy starts with healthy employees — in mind, body, and spirit.

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