The Death of the American Vacation

About a quarter of workers in this country don't receive any paid vacation time. For those who do get it, the average employee in the United States earns 14 days of time off, according to a recent survey by travel site Expedia. And in the last year, the amount of vacation we receive has grown -- from 12 days last year to 14 days this year -- but sadly we've gone from leaving three days on the table to four days on the table. (Incidentally, the time off we receive is nothing compared to other countries. Brits get 24 days, and the French earn a whopping 39 vacation days, almost eight weeks off.

There are two main reasons we're forgoing some of our vacation time: stress and job security.

For some people it is stress. Sixty-five percent of workers say they have trouble coping with stress before, during and after vacation. The fear of returning to a slew of messages and a massive to-do list is enough to keep some people from never leaving their offices.

Others worry about job security. They fear if they're out of sight, they're also out of mind. So they'd rather just not go away. And in some cases, the boss makes it clear that he doesn't take kindly to having his employees gone for too long. Worrying about scheduling a real vacation keeps many from using all of the vacation time they're entitled to take.

This is typical of baby boomers because they place a heavy value on office face-time. Boomers created the phrase, "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't bother to come in on Monday." They're more likely to forgo the vacation days they're entitled to than younger generations.

With cell phones and Blackberries and WiFi everywhere, we're still linked to the office -- even if we do go away.

About a quarter of all vacationers in this country say they check voicemail or e-mail while on vacation. It's a combination of being expected to keep in touch, as well as a desire to be wanted and to be in the know. In some cases, it's easier to handle things as they come up rather than return to that huge pile of stuff. One in three workers in a recent Travelocity survey said that not checking messages while on vacation was more stressful than the actual work itself. But that doesn't mean you should allow work to overtake your vacation.

Now even savvy employers are saying it's important to get away.

More and more corporations are tracking their employees' vacation time to make sure they take it. For example, companies like the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers employ a kind of "vacation police" to urge employees to take time off. They and other savvy corporations like them believe that a rested, rejuvenated employee is more productive. Almost 40 percent of workers who do take vacations say they feel better about their jobs and more productive at work upon returning from vacation. So getting out of the office is a good thing for you and the boss.

The office will no doubt survive without you and it'll reap the rewards of a well-rested workforce if everyone uses the time they're entitled to.

There are a few tips to keep in mind when planning your getaway from the office.

Identify a back-up. With productivity demands on workers today, it's very realistic to assume that some of your work will have to be addressed while you're away. Identify a colleague who'll serve as your back-up - brief him or her on any key issues and tasks, leave organized files and notes. Offer to reciprocate when that person goes on vacation. This buddy system will lessen the pile-up of work and will lessen any disruption in work flow.

Change greetings. Make sure your voicemail greeting and out-of-office e-mail greeting clearly state that you're on vacation with no access to messages. Offer an alternate colleague's contact information for any time-sensitive issues. And be sure to reiterate that you will not respond until you return. That way you don't have to worry that a client or contact is left uncared for — or thinks that you're just not responding.

Give contact info to one person. Don't tell everyone where you're going or how to reach you! Let one key person know where to get you if something urgent arises that requires your attention. Really get away — which means they don't call you, and you don't call them.

Set limits on work. If you're someone who just has to stay in touch, either because your boss expects it or because you want to, there's nothing wrong with checking email here and there — as long as you're not ruining your family's vacation. But if your phone is constantly ringing and you're clearly preoccupied with work, it's not fair to everyone else. I spent my 10-day Christmas vacation working the whole time because I had a deadline to meet, and I didn't realize how it was affecting my family until we got home and my daughter told someone that mommy worked the whole time. I'll never make that mistake again. It wasn't much fun for me, and clearly it wasn't good for my family either. They put up with my work schedule all year round. The least I can do is give them 10 days of fairly undivided attention while on vacation. We all owe that to ourselves and the people we love.

So decide before you go -- I'll check in once a day or I'll work one hour a day -- and then stick to it.

Tory Johnson is the Workplace Contributor on Good Morning America and the CEO of Women For Hire. To connect directly with Johnson, visit www.womenforhire.com.

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