A growing number of companies are introducing generous paid time off (PTO) policies, with many offering expanded or even unlimited vacation days. The problem? The majority of employees still aren't going anywhere.

According to the U.S. Travel Association's Project: Time Off, more than half of American workers fail to use all their vacation time, leaving a stockpile of 662 million unused days and countless unintended consequences. And among those who do, just 27 percent unplug from work communication while away. Part of the problem is with company culture and leadership. Nearly two-thirds of employees report being discouraged or hearing mixed messages about taking time off, and 80 percent say they'd be more likely to use their vacation days if they felt more encouraged or supported by their boss.

Leaders who aren't encouraging employees to use vacation days (or who neglect to take time off themselves) are making a big mistake. At my company, G Adventures, we give full-time employees the opportunity to go on one of our small-group adventure tours every year with most expenses paid. It's one of the best professional development opportunities we offer, and not just because our employees work in tourism. Regardless of what industry you're in, encouraging your teams to use their vacation days -- and leading by example -- is simply smart business. Here's why.

An antidote for the burnout crisis   

New research from Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace highlights just how big of a problem employee burnout has become, with 95 percent of HR leaders saying burnout is sabotaging workforce retention. When employees feel overworked, productivity and engagement levels tend to decrease. Burnout poses serious risks to the business, and that's part of why we're seeing PTO policies grow increasingly generous. Research shows that when employees return from vacation, they come back to work feeling recharged, relaxed and ready to work more productively. But offering vacation days is not enough; company leaders must actively encourage their teams to take time off and lead by example by booking vacation themselves.

"A-ha" moments galore   

Throughout my career, my best and most creative ideas typically haven't come to me while I'm sitting in front of my computer or at a conference room table. And that makes sense; when you're in the same environment, with the same people, doing the same things you always do, it's much harder to get inspired. You will eventually just start regurgitating what you know.

To do great work you need to draw from what you don't know, and to do that you need to be inspired by beautiful things outside of work like food, wine, literature, art, music, architecture, travel or whatever you can find beauty in. My most original thinking comes when I'm experiencing something new. For example, my recent trip to Florida allowed me to take in the wonders of Art Basel Miami and the inspiring creations from the minds of people dedicated to bravely showing their souls through various mediums. To me, that's what travel is all about. As you get to know new cultures -- the people, the art, the customs, the cuisines, the natural surroundings -- you start to accumulate insights and experiences that can spark inspiration for your next great idea at work.

An appreciation for diversity   

Travel introduces you to radically different cultures and ways of life while also underscoring the universality of the human experience; it's a crash course in empathy. You get exposed to new perspectives that challenge your assumptions and give you new frameworks for evaluating problems or - in my case - running a business. As the population grows more diverse, companies know how critical it is to create inclusive environments that enable all employees to thrive, regardless of their race, age, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Travel can provide your managers with the ultimate diversity training and give them a greater appreciation for why diversity matters in the first place.

Today is National Plan For Vacation Day, an initiative created by Project: Time Off to encourage Americans to declare their vacation days for the year. If you're in a position of leadership, it is the perfect time for you to send a clear message to your team about the importance of using all of their vacation days to travel, experience new cultures and recharge. And don't forget to lead by example by booking your own vacation. If you're someone whose head-down dedication to your work is the norm, then you, especially, owe yourself time to look up and out at the world around you. Me? I'm headed away with my family in March, and look forward to what new inspiration is in store.

Bottom line: each year, plan on going somewhere you've never been before. This is not a resolution, but a discipline; the same kind of discipline you practice to stay fit, maintain friendships, or save for retirement. Travel and the planning of your next adventure will provide so much happiness in your life, but only if you make these a priority.

Published on: Jan 30, 2018