Do you live to work or work to live?

America is a nation of workaholics. We take pride in hard work, initiative and achievement – proudly defending the “work hard, play hard” mentality.  Yet, we’re not getting nearly enough “play” time to recharge and revitalize.

The average time worked by full-time employees has ticked up to 46.7 hours a week. Not only are U.S. employees working more, they’re not taking vacation.

According to a recent study, 41 percent of Americans failed to use a total of 429 million days of paid time off in 2014.

Unused days off translate to overworked Americans who are stressed, unhappy and less productive at home and at work.

No-Vacation Nation Liability

Vacations can be great source of morale for businesses – allowing employees to recharge their batteries and replenish mental resources. However, recent data suggests two-thirds of workers receive negative, mixed, or no messages about taking paid time off from their company. In fact, a quarter of workers say they’re not “in ultimate control of their PTO.”

“While many employers understand the benefits of vacation, they’re not communicating or promoting utilization to their employees,” says Cait DeBaun, communications director for Project: Time Off, an initiative aimed at proving the personal, business and economic benefits of taking time off.

Aside from the lack of positive encouragement to take vacation, workers also cited several impediments from taking PTO:

  • 40% of American workers cite the heavy workload awaiting their return as the top challenge in taking vacation.
  • 35% don’t use their time off because they believe “nobody else can do the work while I’m away.”
  • 28% percent of respondents do not use all their time off because they want to show complete dedication to the company and their job.
  • 22% percent said they didn’t want others to see them as “replaceable.”

While vacation time is a precious commodity, it can also be a liability.

Work martyrs – employees who tether themselves to their desks and take few vacation days – cost their companies an average of $1,898 a year, according to an analysis conducted by Oxford Economics for Project: Time Off . This liability accrues annually when employees roll over unused paid time off and does not include sick or personal leave.

Unused paid time off also affects employee happiness, health, performance and productivity – all of which can negatively impact company success.

To help encourage change, several companies are introducing innovative vacation policies that provide incentives to employees to increase their quality of life, and attract talent.

Unlimited Vacation:

Netflix, a pioneer in this space, implemented their unlimited vacation program in 2004; Virgin Group, Gilt Groupe, and MGM Resorts International implemented similar programs more recently.

Minimum Vacation:

To ensure employees take vacation under unlimited policies, some companies have coupled the policy with a minimum vacation requirement. Since implementing a two-week minimum four years ago, Hubspot’s revenues have more than quadrupled.

Double-Pay Vacation:

Travelzoo offers their employees a $1,500 stipend to take trips on their vacation time. RAND Corporation, the Santa Monica-based research organization, pays employees an extra 3% of their monthly base salary for each vacation day taken and another 5% of their annual salary to employees who take all 20 days.

Health Benefits of Vacation

Multiple studies have long preached that vacation is good for your mind, body and soul.

“Vacations are not simply a frivolous indulgence, there’s increasing evidence that they’re crucial for good health,” says DeBaun.

She cites a study from the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 and now in its third generation of participants, and looked at 12,000 men who were at high risk for coronary heart disease and found that those who took frequent vacations lived longer. Those who failed to take annual vacations were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack.

In the same study, women who took vacation only once every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack – compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center surveyed 1,400 people and found that participants who enjoyed leisure activities – including vacations – were likely to have higher positive emotional levels, less depression, lower blood pressure and smaller waistlines.

In order to be our best, we need to take care of our physical and mental health, family life and our work/life balance.

Take your vacation time as seriously as your money:

Yes, time is money and money is time, but health is wealth. If you don’t properly manage your health now, you can damage your future wealth with significant medical costs.

Make PTO a priority by scheduling your vacations in advance:

Communicating with your boss and co-workers by identifying important project dates and deadlines at the beginning of each year, will help you manage your time for effectively and allow you to plan your vacation months ahead – saving you added guilt and stress.

Disconnect from work:

Part of recharging your batteries is disconnecting from work – completely. If you can’t manage to completely disengage, set check-in times so you can enjoy your down time and capture the moment.

DeBaun stresses that taking time off doesn’t have to mean extravagant vacations. “You can tack on a day during a business trip, or make your PTO local by visiting local state parks, museums, enjoying projects around the home that you can only tackle on the weekends, or even something as simple as having lunch with a friend.”

Taking vacation days can help refresh your mind and provide new perspective and a new sense of enthusiasm.

Do you take your allotted PTO days each year? Does taking vacation days make you feel guilty or stressed?