By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE — Planning to kick back and relax next week? If so, you’re in the minority: A survey of 12,000 employees by office-space company Regus says that 64% of us will be conducting business as usual during the week between Christmas and New Year’s — traditionally a time when most people take vacation days, and many companies used to close down altogether.
What’s more, toiling right through the holidays is part of a much larger trend: Last December, consultants Right Management polled U.S. workers and asked, “Have you used all your vacation time this year?” Fifty percent said they hadn’t. When Right’s researchers repeated the poll this year, that figure jumped to 70%.
The findings suggest that people who have jobs are anxious about keeping them. “Staffing is lean, workloads are heavier, and job security is uncertain,” observes Michael Haid, a senior vice president at Right Management. “There’s a lot of stress in the workplace.”
No kidding. But if they’re smart, Haid adds, employers will encourage people to take a break once in a while. “Vacation time is fundamental to a healthy, productive workforce,” he says. “By itself, foregoing a few days off may not be significant, but when so many people think they shouldn’t take the time they’re entitled to, we have problems.” These include “low retention, unnecessary turnover, absenteeism, frequent health or safety claims, and a host of other HR issues.”
Let’s say your employer is not so enlightened, or so far-sighted, as to urge you to get out of town (or at least away from the office). Here’s a radical suggestion: Do it anyway. “Skipping vacations amounts to a $20 billion annual giveaway to U.S. employers,” notes Lois Frankel, an executive coach who is president of Corporate Coaching International. “You wouldn’t volunteer to give back part of your paycheck, so why surrender something that is just as much a part of the compensation you have earned?”
Your health may depend on it. Some years ago, the American Psychosomatic Society, which studies the connection between stress and physical well-being, announced some arresting research results. A detailed sixteen-year project tracking 12,338 men aged 35 to 57 found that, with other factors (diet, exercise, smoking) controlled, the men who took annual vacations where they actually relaxed were 21% less likely to get sick and die during the study period than those who took no real vacations. The regular-vacationers’ chances of dying of heart disease in particular were 32% lower.
Other studies suggest that, for women, the difference is even more dramatic: Female managers who take two or more vacations per year cut their heart attack risk in half, compared to women who take no time off.
Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence that vacations boost people’s productivity (Who does their best work when they’re exhausted?) That may be in part because time off provides a chance to hang out with loved ones. A new survey from Ultimat brand vodka, of all companies, says that 69% of employees are now working so much that they’re losing touch with their families, and almost seven in 10 (67%) say they have missed a family or social event in the past year because they were working.
Understandable, but consider, if you will, some words of wisdom Fortune columnist Stanley Bing once wrote: “The people you love should be around long after you decide to hang it up and move to St. John”; and ensuring that they’ll still be speaking to you by then “means pushing back respectfully every time people with no life try to steal yours from you.”
Too busy, or too anxious, to schedule a getaway lasting a whole week or more? That’s okay. Research has shown that taking several three or four-day weekends throughout the year creates the same energizing, stress-busting effects as a single long break — and, especially these days, may be more realistic, too.