It’s only reasonable that things go to waste sometimes. Banana peels, the milk at the bottom of the jug, the jug itself…but there’s something else that goes to waste, and that’s vacation days. “Vacation days?” you might ask incredulously. Yes, vacation days.
Americans wasted a record-setting 658 million vacation days in 2016. Specifically, 55% of Americans left vacation time unused by the end of the year. That is an enormous amount of time that people could have been on vacation—at the beach, on a hike, curled up with a book— but instead were at work. Some workplaces allow unused vacation days to roll from one year to the next, but some don’t. In fact, 222 million of the 658 million unused vacation days were forfeited, as in, they cannot be rolled over, paid out, or banked for any other benefit—they are simply gone. Why would someone not use a vacation day that’s given to them? People’s work benefits belong to the worker, after all. They should use them.
Well, whether they roll over or not, the fact stands that many vacation days go unused. This is due to many reasons stemming primarily from American work culture. We as a country are wholly overworked, with less and less time for ourselves as people are increasingly tied to technology, and as working class people are pushed out of the city and into further commutes. Furthermore, union membership hit an all-time low in 2016, and non-union jobs are tied to having lower salaries and less benefits. And with the decrease of well paying, unionized jobs, and the increase of box-store, minimum wage jobs that turn into careers, people are stuck working more hours for less money. There’s no law that requires employers to give paid vacation days, which means, of course, that many people do not receive paid vacation days. Not everyone can afford to take off from work—every day not spent at work means less food on the table and less bills paid, and not everyone can swing that trade.
Additionally, the ease of technology has bridged the distanced entirely between the office and the home, and it’s hard to resist the pressure (whether put on by oneself, one’s workplace culture, or one’s boss) to plug back into work mode after work hours. 9-5 jobs are essentially being replaced by 24/hour jobs, as people don’t disconnect from their technology, and in turn, their work. This creates a society in which people are almost always working or thinking and/or stressing about working. “Why take a vacation if I’ll be working the whole time? Might as well save the money it costs to travel, and save the vacation days for another time,” some might think. But that’s a time that may never come.
It is very important to care of oneself and disconnect from work in order to maintain a healthy state of mind. That can be as small as going for a walk outside of the office during the day, having meals with friends or family after work, or going to see a movie during the weekend. But it’s also important to disconnect in a bigger way—to take an intentional, work-free vacation. That can be hard when the thought of taking time off can induce so much stress that the vacation doesn’t even seem worth it. But it’s important to try to be work-free, or even to designate a small amount of time to answering emails but unplugging for the rest. Time off helps people reduce stress, which can actually lead to a decrease in heart disease and other stress related symptoms. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article titled “Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: Risk Factor Changes and Mortality Results” in which a study found that men who take frequent annual vacations were 32 percent less likely to die from heart disease than those who didn’t take frequent vacations. In other words, taking vacation time can actually prolong one’s life.
Taking time off can also improve one’s mental health, as leisure time, including vacations, was found to contribute to having more positive emotions and less negative feelings and depression. People are happier when they have more time for fun. This is related to why marital satisfaction is actually found to increase as the frequency of vacations rises.
If one is able to afford the time off, one should strongly consider taking vacation time—not only because it is fun, but also because it leads to many other benefits. As a society we should encourage our workers to support and protect both their health and mental health, and without taking time off from work that goal becomes far from reach.