Vacation Commitment Day: It's time for your company to commit to vacations

Spring is here...finally! One of the snowiest winters in history on the Eastern seaboard is coming to end. It's time to start thinking about summer and vacation. My organization, Take Back Your Time, declared March 31 as "Vacation Commitment Day" to encourage every employer and employee throughout America to make sure they get the full benefits that vacations offer. We're delighted that Diamond Resorts International®", a respected hospitality and vacation properties company, feels just as strongly about this as we do, and they've shown that by supporting our initiative in a big way because they have an important stake in vacation time.

However, we all do. As employees, we need to feel we can take our earned time without worrying we'll be seen as slackers, or that we'll return to so much work the time off just won't be worth it. We need to be supported by our employers. As HR professionals, you are the ones who can make it happen in your companies.

We're not anti-work. We know hard work has helped make America the country it is. However, we understand that just because something is a good thing, doesn't mean more of it is better. There are limits to your employees acting like machines and even hard work has a law of diminishing returns.

I've been worried about workplace stress in America since I co­ founded Take Back Your Time (www.takebackyourtime.org) in 2002. We want to bring attention to the unhealthy impacts of overwork and burnout in the American workplace, a malady that drains our economy of hundreds of billions of dollars each year. My friend, cardiologist Sarah Speck, calls stress "the New Tobacco." She has a great series of slides that shows your arteries after years of smoking, and after extended stress in the workplace. They are equally ugly and terrifying. Men who don't take vacations are 32 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who do, according to the Framingham Heart Study; women are 50 percent more likely, and at least twice as likely to suffer from depression which gives you a clue as to why working through vacations is a bad idea. However, in the last few years, it's become increasingly clear to us that things have been getting worse instead of better. Doctors treat thousands, perhaps millions, of patients who suffer from vacation deprivation. The smart ones don't prescribe pills; they say, "Take two weeks and call me in the morning!"

America has been called "No Vacation Nation." We, Americans, get and take less vacation time than residents of any other rich country and most poor ones as well. A quarter of American workers receive no paid vacation time at all, while a recent study showed that last year 42 percent of Americans got or used zero vacation days.

Employees left three or more vacation days on the table each year, for a total of nearly half a billion days of lost time off. Some of this was simply lost, but much was deferred. The U.S. Travel Association has documented that American corporations hold liabilities of $224 billion in unused time off, having added a phenomenal $65 billion in the last year alone. It's a number greater than the federal deficit, and it's a ticking time bomb. When the bills come due, the hit will be enormous.

That's the bad news about unused vacation rime. However, vacations also offer huge positive benefits to employers and employees. A Nielsen poll commissioned by Diamond Resorts lnternational® found that workers who regularly take vacations are nearly twice as likely to say they feel happy, healthy and satisfied with their jobs as those who don't. Nine in ten Americans say their strongest, best memories of childhood come from family vacations. I know that's true for me. My first memories are of traveling to Seattle from my home in San Francisco, and the weeklong summer camping trips to Yosemite or to a lakeside resort at California's Clear Lake that our family always took. However, lest you worry that all this feel good stuff isn't so good for the bottom line, there's some pretty strong evidence to the contrary. Leslie Perlow of the Harvard Business School has found evidence that offering predictable, regular periods of time off results in less turnover, better teamwork, better productivity and higher profits for companies. Such knowledge isn't new. On July 31, 1910, the New York Times reported that President Taft was advocating two to three month vacations for all Americans, saying they would boost health and productivity. Though that may be extreme, extended periods of time off -- a week or more -- are necessary for dealing with burnout, the final phase of overwork.

I don't know about you, but a lot of the increased happiness I get from vacations comes from the planning as much as the taking. That's why spring is the right time to begin thinking about your vacation, and encouraging your employees to do the same.

Employees are very much aware when their supervisors send verbal and non-verbal messages that they shouldn't use all their vacation - or any of it for that matter. In the worst case scenarios, they aren't even allowed to take them.

One of the saddest conversations I ever had was with a desk clerk working for a well-known motel chain at the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. I asked how she was and she replied, "I'm not so good. My vacation was cancelled, for the seventh year in a row." When I asked how the company could cancel a vacation that was part of her contract, she said they could because they paid her extra for the rime. "I need the vacation even more than the money," she told me, "but I can't afford to lose this job." So, instead of letting her re-charge her batteries, the company kept on a desk clerk who was clearly depressed and close to burnout.

Her case wasn't that exceptional. Many workers have told me they think they'd be seen as slackers if they took all their days, and among the first to go in the next round of layoffs. Others mentioned all the work they'd come back to since no one was trained to fill in for them - by contrast, such "cross-training" is a matter of course in Europe, where vacations are seen as being as essential as water and air. Is your company sending these kinds of messages to your employees?

I really hope you will stress the value of taking their vacation time with your employees -- some enlightened companies are even paying workers to take the time off - through company discussions and emails. And, consider adding vacation days. Your employees will thank you for it with increased loyalty, creativity, and output.

Start now and let your employees know that replenishing their energy through vacations is something your company takes seriously. And, tell them not to worry about checking for office emails or calling in each day because you aren't holding an electronic leash. You want them to return fully refreshed and ready to put their newfound energy and creativity to work!

So get on the bandwagon for more healthy time off. Check our website at www.takebackyourtime.org. Download our toolkit with lots of ideas about how to implement a pro-vacation strategy. And walk your own talk, letting employees know you really mean it. Begin planning your next holiday and make a personal commitment to take all your vacation days. Do yourself, your health, your happiness, your family and your valued employees a favor. Start now, because there's no present like the time! B&W

John de Graaf is the president of Take Back Your Time www.takebackyourtime.org and a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and time poverty in America. He is the co-author of AFFLUENZA, WHAT'S THE ECONOMY FOR, ANYWAY? and editor of TAKE BACK YOUR TIME, as well as the author of dozens of published articles.

Employee Benefits & Wellness excellence essentials presented by HR.com