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PTO: Use it or lose more than time off

colorful image with luggage tag that reads out of office #vacay

Of the many things America does well, taking vacation time isn’t always one of them.

Don’t believe us? According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (which has in the past dubbed the United States the “No vacation nation”), the United States is the only country in a group of three dozen of the world’s wealthiest nations that doesn’t require employers to give their employees any paid vacation time each year.

And even when U.S. employees do get PTO (paid time off), we have a tendency to leave many of those days on the table unused. A recent Bankrate survey found that only about 30% of Americans who get paid vacation days plan to use all their time in 2022, with 35% planning to use fewer than half of the days they’re entitled to.

The land of less vacation

So why would American workers who are lucky enough to get paid vacation time not use it? Among the most common reasons given are:

  • Their workload is too heavy to get away

  • They’ll be too overwhelmed when they get back to the office if they don’t work on vacation

  • Their supervisor requires them to answer calls and emails, even on vacation

  • They feel their employer is more approving of workers who skip vacations

  • They fear that someone will take their place while they’re away 

While some might call that work ethic admirable, the fact is that working without a break can take a serious toll on your health. A Finnish study found that those who worked 55 or more hours a week not only had a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart diseases than those who worked 35-40 hours per week, but they were also twice as likely to have depression issues and lower cognitive function.

When you never get the chance to rest and recharge, your mental health is at significant risk, too, which can result in:

  • Anxiety, irritability or impatience

  • Increased aches and pains

  • Decreased energy

  • Lower focus

  • Obesity

  • Insomnia

  • Depression

  • Lowered resistance to illness

Eventually, all these negative effects can lead to not only job burnout, but also problems in relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

Vacation to the rescue

So, what can a vacation—even if it’s only a long weekend away—or a staycation at home do for you? There are countless studies showing that taking your vacation time regularly can result in an increased quality of life. The American Psychological Association cited benefits that include:

  • Less risk of heart disease

  • Better sleep

  • Reduced anxiety and depression

  • Less stress (even after just three days away!)

  • Improved productivity

  • Higher satisfaction with life

That’s why vacations or extended work breaks aren’t just a luxury. Other research has shown that even anticipation of a planned vacation can positively affect both your heart health and your level of stress. And the vacations don’t have to be long ones; short vacations of five days or less, when people relax, detach from work and engage their minds in new ways, continue to positively affect mental and physical health upon their return.

So, if you’re tempted to let your vacation days lie unused this summer, think of it this way: Prioritizing time off not only recharges you, but it also recharges your relationships with your family, friends and coworkers and can help revive your job satisfaction. And as the research shows, it may actually give you a few more years with the people you love. Even if you start small with a long weekend or a couple of days here and there, you’ve earned it—now go enjoy it!