Mayer: Vacation’s all I ever wanted

It’s an understatement to say this isn’t the year I envisioned. Sure, COVID-19 has affected nearly every facet of my life, but it’s also changed the way I mark the time. As a fan of travel, my years are often in part defined by the trips I take–and the anticipation and planning that goes into each one. This year I was planning to cruise the British Isles. Go to Vegas with my family to celebrate a milestone birthday. Visit my parents in Boston. None of it, of course, happened.

Where has that left me? Disgruntled, burned out and with several days of unused paid vacation time.

I’m far from alone. Unused vacation time was already an issue among workers, but the year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem far worse. One in six employees is taking less time off than they traditionally would, and 42% of those working from home are not planning to take any time off, according to a July Monster poll. Another poll from software firm Zapier finds that 13% of employees say they won’t take time off work until the pandemic is over. A third of employees feel it’s a waste to take time off due to travel restrictions, and just under a quarter say it’s difficult to justify time off when they’re working from home.

The reluctance is in part driven by an overwhelming fear of losing our jobs. Take time off during an economic downturn where we saw massive amounts of layoffs and furloughs? Yeah, I get it. I didn’t do that either.

The irony, of course, is that we need the time off more than ever. We’re working from home, sure, but we’re also working harder and longer than ever. On average, full-time employees are working an extra 26 hours a month when remote, adding nearly an extra day of work to the week, according to a report from Owl Labs, a video conferencing technology company. And burnout rates are soaring. Over two-thirds, or 69%, of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home, Monster says. Work/life lines are extra blurred, and it’s not pretty.

Overall, our mental health is under duress. The pandemic–plus social unrest, election stress and uncertainty, and more–is causing increased rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

Not taking time off work to unwind? It’s only exacerbating those issues, experts say. “Our ability to travel [and not being able to] interact with others plays into depression as well,” Chuck Columbus, CEO of the American Health Policy Institute, said recently during a webinar discussing rocketing depression rates.

I can relate. Like most of us, I’m tired. Maybe it’s the hundreds of emails I get a week, the dozens of stories I write in a month or the daily Zoom calls (who else is sick of seeing their own face?). Or maybe it’s the news or months of not seeing family or friends or living a normal life. Work is often a welcome distraction from the craziness (although I often write about the pandemic, and its effects, so that’s a bummer), but it’s also a stressor. It’s harder to take vacation when you’re not planning to go anywhere. While I’m certainly not traveling during the pandemic or staying in hotels or flying on airplanes, it doesn’t mean I can’t and shouldn’t take time off work. In fact, it probably means I should do so even more.

In addition to taking a toll on mental health, not using paid time off is leaving money on the table for employees. It’s making them give up an important perk they earned (and deserve!). And it’s no bargain for employers, either. They know stressed, burned-out employees aren’t offering the quality of work they can. And stressed-out workers are much more likely to leave their jobs.

Taking time off always benefits both employees and employers, but at this unique time in history, it’s more than a nice perk to take the time, it’s a business imperative. Employers more than ever should encourage–or push–workers to take time off, to take a breather, to take a step back–even when that vacation isn’t a trip to Disney World but a Netflix marathon or a house project or time with a few good books.

As for me, I’ve gotten that nudge. While I won’t be cruising (or flying or road-tripping), I’m planning to take several days off–a few long weekends here and there–for the remainder of the year.  No, I won’t be cruising. But I’ll at least and try not to answer emails for a few days.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.