Vacation Days Piling Up? Here's How To Get The Most Out Of A Short Vacation

Aug 20, 2018
Originally published on August 21, 2018 3:31 pm

As a nation, we could do a better job at taking time off.

About half of full-time workers recently surveyed by the U.S. Travel Association didn't take all the paid vacation days they earned last year.

More than 700 million vacation days went unused, and we forfeited about 200 million of those days — when vacation benefits didn't roll over. On average, American workers took almost six fewer vacation days than we earned.

If you're among this group, you could be missing out on some of the benefits of leisure time.

It may seem obvious that vacation makes us feel good, but its health benefits are, in fact, measurable. For instance, one study finds engaging in more frequent enjoyable leisure activities, including vacation, is linked to improvements in mood, sleep and blood pressure, and it can help buffer "the negative psychological impact of stress."

There's also research to suggest regular vacationers may get a longevity boost. One line of evidence comes from a study of men who were at high risk of heart disease. Men who regularly took an annual vacation had a reduced risk of death during the study period.

For decades, the vacation trend line was steady. From 1978 to 2000, Americans averaged 20.3 days of vacation per year, including paid holidays. But, during this century, there's been a steady decline. In 2014, Americans took about 16 days a year. Now, it has bounced back up to about 17 days a year.

"We're doing a little better," says Katie Denis of the U.S. Travel Association's Project: Time Off.

Another change: Americans are now more likely to take less than a full week when they do go on vacation.

"The partial week [vacation] is gaining in popularity," says Denis.

The good news is that even short vacations can help reduce stress, at least according to small studies.

"Some of the benefit of a short vacation depends on what you actually do when you're away," says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes about the emotional benefits of vacation.

So, if you're vacation-deprived this summer, it may not be too late. Consider a short trip. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your getaway, from people who study — or practice — the art of vacation.

Plan in advance

"When you have a short amount of time, you've got to be on top of your game in planning activities," says Whitbourne. Check out restaurants, sights and events in advance, and have a road map for your trip. Agree on activities with your travel mates, and book tickets and reservations. Otherwise you may waste precious time in debating each day's activity.

Talk to the people you love

If you plan a getaway with your partner, focus on deepening your ties. In one small study published in Stress & Health, researchers kept tabs on a bunch of vacationers who took a four- to five-day trip with their partner. The results showed people felt more relaxed and had more positive feelings when they engaged in conversations and in fun activities with their partners.

Detach from work

The line between work and leisure time is blurred by our constant use of technology. The Stress & Health study found that people who kept working during vacation were more likely to feel down when they got back.

Bart Lorang, CEO of technology company Full Contact, is so convinced of the value of vacation, he offers a $7,500 incentive to employees to take one. The only catch? They must go completely off the grid.

"They can immerse themselves completely in a new experience without feeling tethered to anything work-related," Lorang says. "Most employees come back feeling refreshed and recharged, ready to jump back into their responsibilities with a fresh perspective."

Unplug, like, really unplug

Despite best intentions, technology makes it incredibly easy to peek at what's happening at work. Vacation pros don't let that happen.

"I delete all business apps, email account apps, social apps and news apps from my phone and tablet," says Lorang. He says when he goes on vacation, "I load up on e-books and music, and sometimes I'll even hand over my device to my wife to avoid checking anything prior to leaving."

To force herself to truly unplug, Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan, has used this out-of-office reply: "I am away from the office and my children have made me promise that I won't check e-mail."

"People replied and said they loved it!" Radesky says.

Try something out of the ordinary

Think of vacation as a growth opportunity. A few days of margaritas on the beach may be fun, but "vegging on the beach doesn't have the same kind of psychological impact as exposing yourself to some new activities," says Whitbourne. Whether it's sightseeing, learning a new skill or some other adventure, find new ways to explore your interests.

Get the whole family on board

Setting expectations and ground rules for a trip can help prevent squabbling. Radesky says agreeing to limit the use of mobile devices can help.

"Checking e-mail, news, social media can generate stress responses in us that we could certainly take a break from while on vacation," she says.

But she says on her family vacations, she doesn't insist on a technology black-out because tech can bring families together, too. For instance, she says, on her summer vacation: "My kids and their cousins took funny slow-motion videos on my phone for a half an hour and laughed their heads off." While the kids were having fun with the videos, this gave her time to have a good conversation with her mom and sister.

Block your calendar early

Most people aren't great about planning, but try this: Before this summer is over, block out time on your calendar for a vacation in summer 2019.

"If you block the calendar, you give yourself an opportunity to take vacation," says Denis of the U.S. Travel Association's Project: Time Off. This simple act sets the planning process in motion.

Survey research shows that managers want to approve vacation, so you may be more likely to get approval if you act early. Also, you'll have more time to dream about your vacation. And anticipation is part of the fun.

It might even be good for your career. A survey from the U.S. Travel Association finds people who take most or all of their vacation time are slightly more likely to get promotions and raises compared to people who take less vacation time.

One interpretation: Vacations help prevent burnout, and workers return from a break feeling more creative and productive.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Summer is almost over. And if you haven't had a lot of time off, well, you're actually not alone. As a nation, we are not great at using all the vacation time we earn, which means we're giving up opportunities to improve our health and our well-being. But it might not be too late. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that you don't have to be away long to get some benefits.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Scott (ph) and Dave Schlosser (ph) have some advice for anyone who hasn't been on vacation - take a short one. Where are you guys visiting from?

SCOTT SCHLOSSER AND DAVE SCHLOSSER: Anchorage, Alaska.

AUBREY: All right.

Scott and his dad flew to the east coast for a wedding. Now they've tacked on a few days of sightseeing in D.C.

I stopped you guys on the street 'cause you look like you have that vacation glow.

SCOTT SCHLOSSER: Yeah. Yeah. No, it's been good. Today we're going to the National Archives Museum, and then we're going to the Spy Museum.

AUBREY: Then it's off to the airport. Schlosser says it's been short but sweet, just enough adventure to break the monotony. He likes to take several getaways like this every year.

S. SCHLOSSER: Smaller, quicker trips. So I don't want to be away too long, but I do want to get away and take some breaks.

AUBREY: The minibreak seems to have wide appeal. Data from the U.S. Travel Association shows that full-week vacations have declined steadily since the 1980s. And though the drop has leveled off, there's now a trend towards partial-week vacations.

KATIE DENIS: The partial-week vacation is really gaining in popularity. And there's a lot of discussion about the right length of a vacation.

AUBREY: That's Katie Denis of the U.S. Travel Association's Project: Time Off. She studies vacation trends.

DENIS: I'm a big believer that it's quality over quantity. If you have an experience that relaxes you or that excites you or that is an adventure for you, I think that that's really the bottom line. It doesn't necessarily matter how many days you take. It really is the quality of the time you have.

AUBREY: What many of us want from vacation is to unwind and recharge. But can we really accomplish this if we're away just a short time? Susan Krauss Whitbourne is professor emerita of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes about the emotional benefits of vacation.

SUSAN KRAUSS WHITBOURNE: Some of the benefit of a short vacation depends on what you actually do when you're away.

AUBREY: Take the results of one study published in the journal Stress and Health. Researchers kept tabs on a bunch of people who took a four- or five-day vacation with their partner. They found a few key factors were linked to improvements in well-being.

WHITBOURNE: This study suggests that when you only have a few days for a vacation, you unplug from your devices. You spend time in quality conversations with your partner. And then do the things that you want to do.

AUBREY: Whether it's cycling, sightseeing or just relaxing at a beach, a lake or a pool. This is just one small study, but it does help affirm what many people assume. If you can't bring yourself to disconnect when you're away, if you constantly check email or social media, you're not really present for the vacation. The study found that doing work on vacation negatively influenced well-being.

WHITBOURNE: Nothing is so important that's going on at work that you can't let it go for a day or two while you take that vacation and use it as a boost.

AUBREY: Our hyperconnectedness doesn't just threaten the quality of our time away. It can also be an obstacle to actually taking a vacation. Project: Time Off has found that more than half of Americans don't use all their vacation days. And Katie Denis says technology may be one of the culprits.

DENIS: It does make us feel like we're constantly in it at work. It's very difficult to pull away. It makes it harder to plan, harder to prioritize vacation time.

AUBREY: People may assume that they'll look like the go-getter or more ambitious if they don't take time off. But Denis says the research suggests this is not the case.

DENIS: Employees who take vacation are actually more likely to get raises, bonuses and promotions, for example.

AUBREY: Sound surprising? Denis says maybe that will motivate you to take a break.

DENIS: Turn a weekend into a long weekend. Be advantageous. It doesn't have to cost a fortune. We have so many things that we can do without breaking the bank.

GREENE: That story on vacations coming from NPR's Allison Aubrey. And I'm not done talking about vacations yet, so we have Allison in the studio with us. Hi, Allison.

AUBREY: Hey there, David. How's it going?

GREENE: Good. OK, really good because I now have this conclusion from your story that taking time off is the way to get promoted. Is that right?

AUBREY: Right. Well, I...

GREENE: The link is solid.

AUBREY: (Laughter) I would not go that far. But the research does suggest that time off might be good for your career. Let me explain this. Project: Time Off surveyed about 4,300 adults who receive paid time off from their employer. So this is an industry-funded study. Keep that in mind. They found that the majority of workers, 52 percent, who took most or all of their time off have been promoted in the last two years. Now, by comparison, just 44 percent of workers who took none or only some of their time off had been promoted.

So, you know, you can look at this two ways. It's not a huge difference. It could be that people who take vacations also have other habits that make them successful. But another way to interpret this is that when people take time off, they avoid burnout. And perhaps they're more productive or creative when they get back.

GREENE: And it doesn't have to be that long. It really can - you can see these benefits with just taking off a number of days.

AUBREY: Well, I will say that the fade-out is faster when you return to work after a short vacation. You lose that glow faster. At least this is what the research suggests. But on the other hand, the re-entry can be easier because the work hasn't piled up. You know, I'd say, David, if you have two to three weeks to take a vacation, go for it. But the reality is that many people can't or don't.

GREENE: And if you're taking those short vacations - I mean, I know not being on your phone and your device all the time is good advice. But what else? What else is there to make sure you're getting the most out of those few days you have?

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, what can really get in the way of relaxation is the hassle factor - so getting lost, waiting in lines, not having packed the right gear, logistical snafus. You can avoid a lot of this by planning. You need to have a road map for your trip.

GREENE: And, Allison, what about the true workaholics who just never seem to get to that point where they can say, I'm going to take some time off? Is there a way to, I don't know, convince them?

AUBREY: Sure. Think about what you're losing. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that workers in the U.S. give up, forfeit more than 200 million days of earned vacation time...

GREENE: Wow.

AUBREY: ...Every year. It's a little bit akin to working for free. I mean, David, would you show up and say, hey, I'm going to work through five of my vacation days this year?

GREENE: I would like to tell my bosses yes, but probably not.

AUBREY: Another strategy is put it on the calendar. Just block it out right now. Block out next year's vacation on your schedule. By doing so, you're more likely to go. Also, you have more time to dream about it. I've got a trip on the books for next February in Costa Rica, and part of the fun is just the anticipation.

GREENE: Well, I am very jealous. All right, NPR's Allison Aubrey telling us about her vacation plans and reporting on vacations and how they can help us whether they're long or short. Allison, thanks.

AUBREY: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF D.N. HURTER'S "SHIGEO SEKITO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.