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Why taking a vacation makes you better at work

January 25, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC

2021 was the year employees came to a realization about serious about their personal time off. After spending nearly two years working from home, people started to recognize that rest and recovery is critical to their work performance. 

The average unused paid time off in 2021 was 4.6 days. In 2020, American workers left an average of 33%, or 5.6 days, of paid time off on the table, according to the the the U.S. Travel Association.

“Health and safety concerns and increased workloads have prevented many American workers from using their hard-earned time off creating a huge demand for vacation in 2022,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association. The organization is promoting January 25 as “National Plan for Vacation Day” with the intent to encourage Americans to make plans for much-needed time off during the year.

More than two-thirds of American workers feel at least moderately burned out, according to a recent study from market research firm Destinations Analysts. More than half (52%) of business owners have not taken a vacation in the past year, reports Capitol One this month, and many report that they feel run down and mentally exhausted, with 62% of business owners reporting having worked longer hours.

Making decisions is mentally taxing, and the more decisions you make, the more fatigued you become. Thus, the longer time you have without taking a vacation, the worse decisions you could make. But research also shows that after breaks, employees are better able to make decisions. Destinations Analysts found that 79% of full-time employees agree that taking vacations is important to job satisfaction as well as their overall health and well-being.

Quite simply, taking vacation time is essential to our long-term health, not to mention employee retention, says Eric M. Bailey, president of consulting firm Bailey Strategic Innovation Group.

“Now, more than ever, we are dealing with elevated levels of stress, anxiety, fear, and frustration due to uncertainty and change,” says Bailey. “As so many things are changing around us and so much of our world is uncertain, our brains are carrying a higher cognitive load as we try to make sense of our environment. We are tired. We are burned out. We are exhausted. We need a vacation.”

While many American workers have opted to leave their jobs altogether—prompting what is becoming known as The Great Resignation—encouraging (or even forcing) employees to take their vacation time could save a company from losing even more skilled members of their workforces.

Bailey suggests managers could start with setting a good example when taking a vacation or even just a long weekend. “Model restful behavior. Don’t answer emails that can wait. Don’t answer the phone (if it can wait). More than any words you say or rules you set for your team around vacation communication, your behavior will set the standard,” he explains. “Similarly, if you answer emails at all hours of the night, your employees who want to follow your lead will start to do the same (or have concerns that they are letting you down if they don’t.”

If necessary, Bailey advises to help employees develop a plan for managing the work that cannot wait until their return, whether it’s delegating or accelerating its completion. “The idea of facing a mountain of work upon return is enough to eliminate the benefit of actually being away,” he notes. “Also, the worry that co-workers, customers, or clients are being left in a lurch is also a significant worry. If, as a supervisor, you can quell these worries, you can increase the likelihood that your employees will take more meaningful and restful vacations.”

As for employees themselves, they also need to set clear boundaries around their vacation time. “Do your best to not let work bleed into your time. If you’re off, be off. If you’re at work, be at work. Even if your vacation doesn’t take you to some exotic location, and you’re spending time around the house to be with your family, be with your family,” Bailey says. “Someone once told me that after 10 years on the job, the only people who will remember your long hours, late nights, and weekends working are your family and friends.”

The workcation compromise

The U.S. Travel Association’s domestic leisure forecast for 2022 does project an increase of 3.5% on travel spending, which could mean that people will be using more of their vacation time to get out there this year. And In 2021, the association found 65% of paid time off was used for travel—up from 60% of paid time off used from travel in 2020.

“There continues to be strong pent-up demand for travel. Americans value vacation time to travel and spend more time with family and friends, explore new destinations, and the mental health benefits of getting away are critical to overall well-being,” Dow tells Fortune. “We do expect that a greater percentage of time off used specifically for travel to continue to rise as the Omicron begins to wane. Most importantly, we know that those who actually plan for vacation are more likely to use it, which is why planning in January is so critical.”

That said, arranging vacation time can be tricky when balancing one’s own schedule along with those of both their colleagues as well as their travel companions. And perhaps some workers would like to travel more than their allotted personal time off would allow. Not to mention as many Americans changed jobs in 2021, this would impact the average number of days earned, and possibly used, if many feel hesitant to take time off in a new job.

“Rested and recharged workers create a better, more productive workplace,” Dow says. “I encourage business leaders and team members to make vacation planning a priority, particularly those who have who have been working harder than ever throughout the pandemic, like first responders, medical staff, retail workers, and those who keep our supply chain moving.” 

As a compromise, many people have been taking advantage of the option to work remotely by not working from home, but rather their hotels or rented home-stays (such as via Airbnb or Vrbo) for longer durations throughout the year.

According to a recent study from Kayak in January, nearly one fifth of employed Americans plan to take a “workcation” (i.e. working remotely from a different location) in 2022. The travel bookings site found this trend is even more prominent amongst Generation Z workers, with over 40% planning to take a workcation next year.

“With the rise of remote work, truly signing off can be more of a challenge and lead to burnout. It’s important for people to really unplug without the noise of Slacks, emails, work calls,” says Kayak’s chief people officer, Simon Jones.

Last year, Kayak declared two full weeks of company-wide time off (one week in June and one week in December), so that employees could fully disconnect to focus on themselves and any family without work distractions, Jones explains. And the company instituted a “work from (almost) anywhere” policy that lets employees choose how often they work from the office, if at all.

“We’re a travel company, so we want our employees to experience new places—not to mention people are generally happier when they have a trip on the books to look forward to, and that’s good for everyone,” Jones says.

As this trend progresses, Kayak launched a new interactive “Work From Wherever” guide for customers, designed to help travelers find the best place to go based on one’s personal and professional needs. These factors include calculating the average price of a flight, hotel, rental car, and Internet speed as well as the number of coworking spaces in a given destination.

“Companies that support blending business travel or remote work with leisure travel will have a competitive advantage with talent,” Jones advises.

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