Are you one of the millions of Americans who's "married" to your work, taking only a few days off every year because of your many important responsibilities? If so, research suggests you aren't doing yourself or your employer any favors. Not only that, you're becoming a dinosaur. Americans are finally starting to take more vacation time, and that's a good thing.

For the past few years, a wide range of experts have stressed the importance to everything from productivity to mood to health of taking vacation time every year. Even so, Americans took less and less vacations, with average total days off every year dropping from just over 20 days between 1978 and 2000 to about 16 days in recent years according to research by Project Time Off. Less than half used all the vacation time they'd earned, in effect donating an average $604 each back to their employers in 2016.

But the picture is starting to change. In 2016, Americans took an average 16.8 days off, up noticeably from 16.2 days off in 2015. It may not sound like a big change, but according to Project Time Off, this is the biggest increase we've seen since used vacation days began dropping at the beginning of this century. And it looks like the trend may be growing in 2017. New research by the vacation search engine Liligo shows a significant increase in the average length of summer vacations based on the bookings in its database--up from an average 10 days in 2015 and 2016 to a whopping 14 days in 2017.

Unlike the Project Time Off study, Liligo's figures aren't weighted to reflect the population as a whole. They could result in part from people taking more trips to Europe this year, inspired by favorable dollar-to-euro exchange rates. (Paris appears among Liligo's top four destinations this summer and it did not last summer.) Nevertheless, taken together these two statistics seem to suggest a change in Americans' attitudes toward vacations. It could be because of organizations such as Project Time Off, or because of growing recognition among employers of the importance of vacation time. Or it could be that in a time of skilled labor shortages and low unemployment, employees are less fearful that a week or two away from work will cost them advancement opportunities, or even their jobs.

Whatever the reason, Americans taking more vacations is a welcome development. You should jump on this trend, because your relationships (both at home and at work), your productivity, your mood, your health, and possibly even your longevity will benefit. Here's how:

1. Use all your vacation time.

The sad fact is that most Americans still don't take all the vacation time they've earned. If that describes you then consider this: You are doing your job on a volunteer basis for a week or more every year. Is that what you want? 

Some employees can recoup the vacation time they didn't take in the form of extra cash or severance pay when they leave their jobs. But if this is your plan, don't count on it. With over half of all Americans not taking vacation time, this is becoming a big liability many companies carry on their balance sheets, and some are seeking to get rid of that liability by instituting use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies, or else unlimited vacation policies (in which case, of course, time off doesn't accrue). You'll be better off if you just take all your vacation time, and so will everyone who works or lives with you. You'll also be part of a growing trend: Although more than half of Americans don't take all their vacation time, that number is shrinking according to Project Time Off.

2. Don't be sucked in by "vacation shaming."

Nearly half of Americans in the Alamo Rent A Car annual vacation survey said they had experienced "vacation shaming" in which colleagues make them feel guilty for taking a vacation and leaving others to pick up the slack. If this goes on in your workplace, don't give in to the pressure. Tell anyone who complains that they'll have to do extra work while you're away that you're more than happy to return the favor when they take their own vacation. If they proudly proclaim that they're too busy or too indispensable to go on vacation, let them know that their productivity is likely suffering because of that decision. In fact, this lower productivity may be the real reason covering for you seems like such a burden.

3. Plan well in advance.

There are a couple of reasons why this is a good idea. First, if you've made vacation plans a few months in advance, and already purchased airplane tickets, your partner has already arranged for time off and so on--you're very unlikely to cancel your vacation at the last minute. A well planned vacation is a vacation that actually happens.

A second reason is that research shows the benefits of going on vacation begin before the vacation itself. You can get eight weeks of increased happiness out of planning and looking forward to your vacation. Taking the time to plan your vacation well in advance gives you more time to be happy about it.

4. Plan to avoid checking in with work.

Another big advantage to planning well in advance is that it can save you from checking in, or worse, actually working, while you're on vacation. Do you want to be the person who conks out early in the evening in some exotic locale because you were up a couple of hours earlier than your family or traveling companions checking email and dealing with urgent matters? Do you want to be sitting in an internet cafe or your hotel room finishing off one last report while everyone else is at the beach? Don't be that person.

Because you're planning well in advance, you have time to bring other team members up to speed on the matters they might have to handle while you're away. You can make sure all your important contacts, both inside and outside your company, know exactly which day you're leaving, and when you'll be back. Use your vacation planning time wisely, and you'll be able to enjoy your vacation to the fullest.

5. Make sure the people who work for you take all their vacation time too.

It's especially important to take all your vacation time if you have people reporting to you. Your employees will take a cue from what you do, and if you never take vacation time, they may not either. That's bad for your workplace all the way around. If you truly don't want to go away on vacation, take a staycation. Or consider finding a week-long project that you can work on at home and then telling everyone you're taking the week off.

Whatever you do, be careful of engaging in vacation shaming yourself. No one in your company--yourself included--should be indispensable. And it certainly should be feasible for every employee to take a week or even two away from work during the summer without having to check in every day, and without bringing business to a standstill or causing a huge burden on co-workers. If that doesn't sound like your workplace, it's time to make some changes.

Published on: Jun 20, 2017