With spring behind us and our eye on summer, thoughts often turn to vacation. For some, vacations are routine and/or are based in tradition. This could include weekends at the cottage or a nearby campsite. Vacations sometimes revolve around a week or two at the same time every year to the same place. Or, perhaps vacations are novel experiences each year. Unfortunately, it appears that many North Americans do not take vacation and that portable technology has made it more difficult for us to be fully engaged during our vacation.
Growing up, I had the privilege of experiencing two weeks of vacation at a rental in Nova Scotia near where my maternal grandparents lived. Our first trip there was around my sister’s first birthday (I was 4 and a half). My father, a lawyer, had a fairly stressful job and the idea was that getting away would be a chance for us to have focused time together as a family. Over the years since those summers away, our family has fondly reflected on our time at “Harbour View”. Our rented cottage did not have a phone (and in the 1970s and 1980s, there were no cell phones). My father used to say that one of the reasons we went to Harbour View was because if we did not leave town and get away from the phone, he would never be able to leave work behind.
As I reflect back on my family’s vacation practices, I see the wisdom. It was an opportunity to detach. It was a time for rest, a time to relax, and a time to focus on family. I remember my father reading lots of books, playing tennis with my sister and I (once we were a little older), taking us to the on-site pool a couple of times a day, and playing catch and baseball with us in the field behind the cottage. He was noticeably more relaxed and humorous. Getting away was smart and the outcomes for him (and us as a family) were clear and significant enough that I remember them 35+ years later.
In stark contrast to my father taking all his vacation each year, a number of studies have demonstrated that vacation time is not being used. Project: Time Off (2017), an American study, found that Americans used a half-day more vacation (16.8 days) in 2016 compared with 2015 (16.2 days). However, because more vacation time was earned, more vacation days were left on the table than the previous year. In Canada, the story is fairly similar. In 2015, on average, Canadians accrued 17 days vacation and took, on average, 15.5 days (Montgomery, 2015b). The 2010 Statistics Canada General Social Survey found that one third of Canadians took less than 10 days vacation and 19.3% took no paid vacation days at all (Hilbrecht & Smale, 2016) which is slightly better than the 23% who took no vacation days in the U.S. (Ray, Sanes, & Schmitt, 2013).
In North America, “letting go” while on vacation and disconnecting is also a problem. For example, 57% of Canadians respond immediately to work-related email while on vacation (Montgomery, 2015a). One U.S. study of those working more than 50 hours a week found that 30% did a significant amount of work while on vacation.
Personally, I struggle with taking big blocks of time for vacation and with using all my vacation days. At times I have wondered if it is, in part, a result of not having children. I’ve thought that maybe I’d be more inclined to recreate the kind of vacation experience I had as a kid for my own children or I would crave more intense, uninterrupted quality time that a vacation could provide. However, it seems that perhaps there is more in play that my lack of offspring, and it also seems that I’m not alone in leaving vacation days on the table.
One of the reasons people struggle with taking vacation is the work norms that produce pressure to respond right away messages they receive through message-based technologies such as e-mail or text messages (Barber & Santuzzi, 2015). These pressures make it difficult to set physical and temporal boundaries that support the separation of work and leisure (Park, Fritz, & Jex, 2011). While personality characteristics (e.g., conscientiousness, extroversion) can contribute to this impulse to check and respond to work-related email, norms in the work environment are also to blame (Barber & Santuzzi, 2015). These norms are created in response to the demands of the job (and job overload). It can be created by employers who email their employees during non-work hours and by employees who respond to work messages during non-work hours (who may be keen to demonstrate their work ethic or present themselves as work martyrs; Ammar, Santuzzi, & Barber, 2016). When responding to messages during non-work hours becomes the norm, it makes it more difficult for employees to set boundaries that support detaching from work including during vacation.
Feeling guilty or experiencing shame from co-workers when using the vacation time to which one is entitled is referred to as “vacation shame”. It seems that a younger generation of workers and women are more likely to experience this guilt or shame. A 2016 Alamo Family Vacation Survey found that 59 percent of Millennials and 41 percent of older employees feel a sense of shame when they take time off. And 25% of all women, compared with 20% of all men, reported that feelings of guilt about taking vacation held them back from using vacation time.
These feelings may be a result, in part, of a lack of clear messaging about time off. In the Project: Time Off (2017) study, 66% of those surveyed felt their organization culture was ambivalent about, discouraged, or sent mixed messages about taking time off. When employee vacation time and the benefits that result are not valued, it may not be promoted or encouraged.
Why Vacation and “Unplugging” on Vacation are Important
Detaching from work is critical to the psychological and physical recovery process that allows us to go back to work and perform well (Fritz, Yankelevich, Zarubin, & Barger, 2010). Workplace telepressure and vacation shame make detaching more difficult and lead to employees not using all of their vacation time or not getting the optimal results from the vacation time they do take. The consequences are broad ranging.
Workplace telepressure has been found to contribute to higher levels of physical and cognitive burnout, health-related absenteeism (Barber & Santuzzi, 2015), poor sleep quality (Sonnetag & Fritz, 2015). And, when workplace telepressure violates boundaries between work and family life, it can lead to less satisfaction with the investment in family and greater work-family conflict (Hunter, Clark, Carlson, 2017). Vacation shame means that employees often take fewer vacation days which can contribute to lower productivity and burnout (Project: Time Off, 2017). And perhaps it might be useful to keep this quote in mind when thinking about checking and responding to messages while on vacation: “Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master” – Christian Lous Lange (1921)
It is important to understand that there is a relationship between the amount of paid vacation taken and life satisfaction and also self-assessed health (Hilbrecht & Smale, 2016). More specifically, longer vacations were associated with “greater satisfaction with work–life balance, better mental health and reduced time pressure” (p. 49).
One final point. Arguably, one of the reasons we take vacations is because they offer opportunities to create memories with friends or family. If you want to increase the chance that you can fondly reflect back and remember aspects of your vacation, paying attention to how long you are connected while you are on vacation is important. Vozza (2017) reported on one 2016 study that found using your smartphone to take pictures and finding things to do can help with remembering your vacation. However, those who are on their phones for two hours or more a day are 26% more likely to have trouble remembering the experiences you had while on your vacation. Using your device for work-related activities – even for an hour – can have an impact. Only 43% of people who were on their devices for work one hour or more per day remembered all the events on their vacation while 60% those who used them less than one hour were able to do so. And those who worked on their laptops recalled significantly fewer aspects of their vacation.
If you have paid vacation, you are entitled to it. If you do not take it, you are essentially donating money back to your organization (Project: Time Off, 2017). You may also be placing your mental and physical health at greater risk and compromising your own productivity on the job. Not detaching from work while on vacation produces similar consequences, but can also have an impact on your family relationships. One has to wonder whether being a work martyr by not taking vacation or all your vacation and working/responding to messages while on vacation is worth these costs.
Ammar, J., Santuzzi, A. M., & Barber, L. K. (2015). Are you suffering from telepressure? Time for a cure. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201504/are-you-suffering-telepressure-time-the-cure
Barber, L. K., & Santuzzi, A. M. (2015). Please respond ASAP: Workplace telepressure and employee recovery. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 20(2), 172-190.
Fritz, C., Yankelevich, M., Zarubin, A., & Barger, P. (2010). Happy, healthy, and productive: the role of detachment from work during nonwork time. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 977-983.
Hilbrecht, M., & Smale, B. (2016) The contribution of paid vacation time to wellbeing among employed Canadians. Leisure/Loisir, 40(1), 31-54.
Hunter, E. M., Clark, M. A., & Carlson, D. S. (ahead of print, 2017). Violating Work-Family Boundaries: Reactions to Interruptions at Work and Home. Journal of Management, Doi: 0149206317702221.
Montgomery, M. (2015a, July16). Vacations? Canadians need to let go but don’t. Radio Canada International.
Montgomery, M. (2015b, October ). Canadians and their vacations. Radio Canada International.
Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S. M. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: the role of communication technology use at home. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16(4), 457-467.
Ray, R., Sanes, M., & Schmitt, J. (2013). No-vacation nation revisited. Washington, DC:
Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2015). Recovery from job stress: The stressor-detachment model as
an integrative framework. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(1 ), 72-103.
Vozza, S. (2017, June 2). What happens to your brain when you work on vacation. Fast Company.