Use it, don’t lose it

De Graaf

De Graaf

Staff Writer
Want to stay healthy? Take a vacation. That’s the message John de Graaf is trying to get out.
De Graaf, of Seattle, is president of Take Back Your Time, a nonprofit coalition dedicated to encouraging Americans to use all of their vacation days. The organization held its first Vacation Commitment Day on Tuesday.
Many studies have shown that men who do not regularly take vacations are one-third more likely to die of a heart attack, de Graaf said.
“If you’re female it’s even worse,” 50 percent more, he said. He said studies have also shown that people who don’t regularly take vacations have a much higher rate of depression.
But despite the health benefits, many Americans don’t take all the vacation days they have. Take Back Your Time cited research from the U.S. Travel Association, which found that some 40 percent of Americans fail to use an average of seven or more days of paid vacation every year. Nationally, the figure is 400 million days of unused vacation, de Graaf said.
De Graaf said there are three main reasons people don’t take all their vacation. First, people feel frightened that, “when the next layoff comes,” they’re more at risk if they’re seen as a “slacker.”
“Whether that fear is real or not, I think, varies from company to company,” he said.
Sometimes even when an employer is actively encouraging employees to take vacations, though, that fear is still there, he said.
Second, people complain that when they do go on vacation they come back to a lot of extra work.
“No one covers for them,” de Graaf said.
He said that American companies are less likely than European companies to cross-train people to take over others’ duties when they’re not there.
The third reason is that people say they can’t afford to take a vacation. De Graaf said a vacation doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money, and could be something like camping. He does encourage people to take “a block of time, not just a day here and a day there” in order to truly unwind and prevent burnout.
He also encourages people to go away from home rather than take vacation days but stay home.
“You get away from the routine,” he said.
He said women, in particular, may find they are stuck with many household chores during their “vacation” if they stay home, so leaving home can be “quite valuable” to escape from their usual routine.
De Graaf encouraged minimizing the use of electronics, such as checking email. He said different people may have different preferences, and some may find they feel better if they do check email at least occasionally. But he encouraged people to limit this, if not outright eliminate it, and said employers should encourage their employees not to feel that they need to check in while they are on vacation.
De Graaf’s interest in the issue came in part from making a film for PBS in the early 1990s called “Running Out of Time.” It wasn’t until many years later that he became an activist on the issue. Take Back Your Time established the first Take Back Your Time Day in October 2003. Take Back Your Time Day is different from Vacation Commitment Day this week.
Spring is a great time for Vacation Commitment Day, since people often in the spring start planning the vacations they will take in the summer, de Graaf said.
Part of Vacation Commitment Day involved encouraging employers to “send out the right signal” and tell their employees that they want them to take all their time. Some employers go far enough to offer financial incentives if employees take time off and while “we don’t expect companies to go that far” de Graaf is encouraging them to communicate that they know that vacation is good for their employees.
“That’s really important” because if employees feel like they’ll be penalized for taking vacation they’re less likely to, he said.
Take Back Your Time is a nonprofit organization that is part of a larger nonprofit called the Happiness Alliance, which looks at positive psychology and research on what they have found makes people happier. The Happiness Alliance has found that time balance and “stress from overwork” are among the things contributing to making Americans less happy.
De Graaf said a friend of his who is a cardiologist refers to it as “the new tobacco,” as research has found that stress and overwork have the same effects on the arteries as smoking. She tells her patients, “take two weeks and call me in the morning,” de Graaf said.
De Graaf said not taking enough vacation is an American phenomenon.
“Virtually everyone in the world takes more vacation time than Americans,” he said.
He said in Asia people may also not take as much but in Europe and Latin America people who are given four, five or even six weeks of vacation will take it.
De Graaf said this may have to do with Americans’ tendency to assume that, if something is a good thing, then the more of it, the better. So people who say they value hard work may work to excess. Hard work is indeed a good thing, “but you can overdo it,” de Graaf said.
As part of its Vacation Commitment Initiative, Take Back Your Time asked both employers and employees to acknowledge the importance of taking regular vacations and commit to taking them regularly.
This week’s Vacation Commitment Day was the first, but de Graaf hopes to continue it annually. The day for him included a lot of publicity, and trying to get the word out to encourage employers to discuss vacation with employees. The initiative included a free “Vacation Commitment Initiative” toolkit, that was made available to human resources professionals from various companies.
Vacation Commitment Day was sponsored by Diamond Resorts International. A nonprofit organization, Take Back Your Time has also received funding from individual donors and foundations.
De Graaf is “very excited” about the future of Vacation Commitment Day.
“All the response has been so positive,” he said.
Take Back Your Time plans other efforts in the future and is considering a certificate that companies could earn for encouraging vacation.
“We really believe in this message,” de Graaf said.
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