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Expert Source: John de Graaf, president of the Take Back Your Time initiative and coauthor of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.

When it comes to paid time off, American workers get the short end of the stick. In Spain and Germany, for example, employees receive some 30 days off each year, as mandated by law. The average staffer in the United States, meanwhile, receives only about 16 days — and as many as a quarter of all businesses don’t offer any vacation time.

What’s more, millions of Americans who do receive vacation time don’t use all of it. According to Project: Time Off, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, more than half of U.S. workers didn’t use all their vacation time in 2015. That’s a whopping 658 million days off that no one enjoyed.

The resistance is understandable. The thought of work piling up, the fact that travel can be prohibitively expensive, and the challenge of choosing what to do with limited free time can all make vacations feel like more trouble than they’re worth.

But multiple studies have shown that taking time off isn’t simply an indulgence — it’s essential for health and productivity.

John de Graaf, president of the Take Back Your Time initiative, explains how to overcome vacation anxiety and reclaim your leisure time.

Challenges to Overcome

Concern about work not getting done. “People worry that while they’re away the emails will pile up and there will be no one to cover for them,” says de Graaf. The feeling that things will simply fall apart in their absence can cause people to postpone time off indefinitely.

Fear of resentment. You may be convinced that the people who cover for you will resent you — and that you’ll have to deal with animosity when you return.

Fear of being perceived as a slacker. Even though your claim on vacation time is legitimate, you might worry that you’ll be seen as less devoted to your job if you use it. If you’re self-employed, you might feel pressured to always be on call for your clients, lest they take their business to someone who seems to be more available.

An antivacation work culture. Workplace attitudes have a powerful impact on vacation use. “You have some managers who will say or imply, ‘Loyalty means being here all the time,’” says de Graaf. Executives often brag about never taking time off. If you swim against this tide, colleagues may drop hints that you’re not working as hard as they are.

Workaholism. You may have internalized the widespread American attitude that relentless labor is more commendable than a balanced life, he says. You may believe that taking time off is a sign of laziness, that you don’t deserve a vacation, or that a serious job means never taking breaks.

Money worries. People often feel that if they are going to go to the trouble of taking a vacation, it has to be “worth it.” For a lot of us, this means “expensive”: a fancy cruise, a trip abroad, or two weeks at an all-inclusive resort. If this is your belief and you can’t afford the expense, you’re likely to skip vacations altogether.

Scheduling hassles. Planning a vacation is a challenge, especially when it involves navigating multiple work and social calendars. “You and your partner may have different schedules, so it’s hard for the two of you to find time to go away together,” says de Graaf. If you add kids or pets to the mix, things can get even trickier.

Strategies for Success

Treat vacation as a healthcare investment. Contrary to popular belief, taking a vacation is not a luxury. It’s essential for your overall health.

“There’s plenty of evidence that people who regularly take vacations are much less likely to have heart disease than people who don’t,” de Graaf notes. “A study found that women who don’t take regular vacations are about twice as likely to suffer from depression. And their susceptibility increases the longer they delay taking a vacation.”

Plan trips well ahead of time. “People who plan vacations are far more likely to take them,” de Graaf says, adding that most planning stress results from a lack of time. Planning ahead lets you take advantage of cheaper airfares and more lodging options. Starting early also lets you imagine a variety of possibilities, making planning fun instead of frustrating.

Make arrangements with work colleagues. Give those who rely on you plenty of notice before your vacations. Establish who will cover for you while you’re gone, and make arrangements to return the favor. This can reduce stress on both sides, says de Graaf.

Understand vacation’s benefits. If your manager discourages time off, try sharing research about how vacations improve productivity. De Graaf’s nonprofit ( has an archive of relevant articles, as does business consultant Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project ( If you’re self-employed, read these articles to your inner taskmaster.

Take the vacation you can afford. If you’re strapped for cash, an expensive vacation will cause more stress than it relieves — but there’s no reason that a trip has to be expensive. “When I was a kid, my family didn’t have a lot of money, so we went camping,” de Graaf says. “It didn’t cost very much, and it’s what I remember most fondly from my childhood.”

You can also take staycations, which cost nothing. What’s so bad about spending a week sleeping late and drinking coffee in your pajamas at home?

Go away by yourself. If coordinating a vacation with your partner or family is simply not feasible every year, take a trip by yourself, and encourage your partner to do the same, advises de Graaf. “Vacation can be a nice opportunity to enjoy yourself on your own,” he says. It also gives you a chance to spend your time exactly as you like. This is important to do occasionally, since — like lost vacation days — your time isn’t something you can get back.

This originally appeared as “The Trouble With Time Off” in the July/August 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Leo Acadia

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