If you can't remember the last time that you took a "real vacation," listen up. Too few days away from the job can negatively affect your ability to work effectively.
"It can cause irritability, fatigue, insomnia, depression, even memory loss," said Julie Strich, MLIS, CEB, research director at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. "In the workplace, if you are suffering from irritability, that can jeopardize relationships with colleagues and patients. If you are suffering from fatigue, you tend to slow down, display delayed reaction time, poor decision-making."
It all adds up to something called "presenteeism," Strich said, which is when a worker reports to the job (as opposed to absenteeism), yet is not able to work to full capacity. And it's a career buster.
The antidote to presenteeism? Vacations.
U.S. Vacation Benefits Lagging
"Vacations improve freshness and productivity," said Joe Robinson, author of "Don't Miss Your Life" and a work/life balance speaker, trainer, and strong advocate of regular vacations. "Vacations have been shown to increase your on-the-job performance as much as 40 percent when you return. So having rested employees is really critical for business."
Yet with all of the signposts pointing to the value of leisure time in helping to maintain healthy, productive workers and build fruitful careers, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not have a minimum paid leave law.
"There are truly only a handful of countries in the world that don't have one," Robinson said. "If facilities don't want to give you a vacation, they don't have to. We're seeing more of that; 25 percent of American workers don't get any vacation," he said, citing the No-Vacation Nation study.
The U.S. mindset goes back to a time when work was more menial and productivity was tied to how many hours you were walking behind your horse pushing a plow, explained Jeffrey Pfeffer, PhD, author and professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.
"There is this belief - which is dead wrong - held by some employers that good employees work themselves to death," Pfeffer said. Some misguided bosses send a message either explicitly or implicitly to employees that to take a vacation somehow signals disloyalty or a lack of commitment to the job.
On the other side of the ocean, Europeans are proud of the philosophy, "We don't live to work; we work to live," and their vacation policies reflect this commitment. For example, employees in Sweden are legally entitled to a minimum of 25 work days of vacation time, plus 13 paid public holidays. And if that weren't enough, additional leave, typically five to 10 work days per year, is available for many Swedes simply for the asking. Similarly generous policies dominate most European and Scandinavian countries.
But the vacation status of healthcare providers at one Canadian hospital has them all beat.
Unlimited Paid Vacation?
At Windsor Regional Hospital in Ontario, President and CEO David Musyj implemented an unlimited paid vacation benefit for all staff. And what might have seemed an impossible thing to do at a healthcare facility has been an all-around success story.
"We pride ourselves as being a progressive institution, always looking outside the box and examining what leading trends are, and to see if we can make them work in our facility," Musyj said. "I had read articles about companies with unlimited time off, and I said to myself, 'If IBM can do it, why couldn't we?'"
Recruiting seasoned healthcare providers into the hospital's old benefits system - in which they would have had to work one full year before getting a two-week vacation - wasn't attractive. "Experienced workers might already have had five weeks of vacation time where they were; they weren't anxious to come here and lose it," Musyj explained.
Now when prospective hires come into Windsor's HR department to interview, their first reaction to the unlimited vacation policy is disbelief. "They say, 'You've got to be kidding.' We say, 'No, it really is unlimited,'" Musyi said. "It is a great draw. It has had the positive impact that we had hoped for."
Employees Give Back When They Take
At first, some staff at Windsor Regional Hospital were skeptical that unlimited paid vacation could work, Musyj explained. Some thought they would find it impossible to get approval for additional days off; others thought people would abuse the policy. They were all wrong.
"Now we're more than a year into it, and it has been an overwhelming success," Musyj said. "Employees see that the organization trusts them to be responsible for being clearly in control of their own time. What we've seen is that teamwork, which was good before, is even better now. It has increased exponentially because of this. Now when someone wants to take a vacation, very often others will step forward to cover a shift, pitch in, because they know whenever they want to take off others will do the same for them. It's in everyone's best interest to keep everything running smoothly."
Most importantly, Musji wants his staff to be "at the top of their game for patient safety, for quality care. If a worker is tired, exhausted, burned out, then patients are going to suffer," he said. "A staff member who is on the job 52 weeks a year, or who only takes a week off, is of less or no value to the organization."
Combatting 'Compassion Fatigue'
Indeed, reporting to work when a vacation is overdue can lead to conditions that hurt job performance and personal well-being. In nursing, for example, vacations are critical to delivering optimum care.
"When nurses are caring for people with complex physical and/or psychosocial issues, they get what we call compassion fatigue," explained Patricia Gonce Morton, PhD, RN, ACNP-BC, FAAN, professor and associate dean for academic affairs, University of Maryland School of Nursing. "Compassion fatigue is really a way to cope with overwhelming situations ... to protect yourself from the intense feelings that arise. But it comes across to patients as no longer caring. You'll get surveys back saying, 'The nurse seemed cold and insensitive to my condition .' In reality, it was self-preservation."
Morton recalled experiencing compassion fatigue when she was a new graduate embarking on her first nursing job: "I had to work through the holidays that year. We had 11 patients in our coronary care unit and, one by one by one, between Christmas and New Year, every patient died. I tried to emotionally cope with all of that, as well as cope with being away from family for Christmas. But what do you do with that emotion? How do you recover? In nursing, it is essential to have time away, to renew in body and spirit, so you can give physically and emotionally and provide optimum care."
Vacations' Healing Power
Catherine O'Keefe, MEd, CTRS, an instructor in leisure studies and therapeutic recreation at the University of South Alabama, is associated with Take Back Your Time, an organization that emphasizes the importance of leisure time and vacations.
"How are overworked staff going to have any credibility with patients, telling them how to live a healthier life, when they don't do it themselves?" O'Keefe asked. "And if obesity is an outcome of stress-related poor eating, you only have to look at the population of clinicians working in hospitals to know that too many are not healthy."
Time away from work is good for you on many levels, Robinson agreed. "On the health front, they are as important as watching your cholesterol or getting exercise. Annual vacation cuts the risk of heart attack in men by 30 percent. And women who take more than one vacation a year cut that risk by 50 percent," he said. "There's no health food that can give you that benefit."
And vacations also cure job burnout, the last stage of chronic stress which is difficult to get rid of. "Vacations have been shown to re-gather crashed emotional resources," Robinson said. "Vacations heal us."
Valerie Neff Newitt is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.