Whether it involves lounging at a resort along miles of white sandy beaches or visiting a national park, who doesn’t like vacation? It turns out, Americans. The use of vacation days is on a downward trend in the United States. According to a recent study, U.S. employees took an average of 16 vacation days in 2013, compared to 20.3 days in 2000.

A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank, states, “The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time and is one of only a few rich countries that does not require employers to offer at least some paid holidays.”

The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides standards for wages, does not require employers to provide paid time off. As a result, almost a quarter of full-time workers in America, roughly 30 million, don’t receive paid vacation time. This is in comparison to Europeans who get at least four to five weeks off by law, Australians who get a mandatory four and workers in Japan who get two weeks.

We are second to Japan in our number of unused vacation days. A study by Oxford Economics found that U.S. workers typically leave three paid vacation days unused at the end of each year. And 13 percent didn’t take a single day at all. Employees stated many reasons in the glassdoor.com survey for not using their allotted time. As a result of cutbacks, many employees fear that taking time away will communicate a lack of dedication and believe they will be passed over for raises and promotions or will be the first to go if layoffs occur. Others are concerned that no one else at the company is equipped do their work while they’re away. Some are convinced they can’t get away due to heavy workloads and are worried about getting behind or not reaching their work goals. However, according to EY, an audit firm, employees who use more vacation time tend to have better performance reviews.

Japan, known for its workaholic culture, is moving in the direction of mandating employees to use their vacation days. These efforts are the result of research the Japanese government has been conducting since 2012 that has concluded its workaholic culture comes at the high price of many negative social, health and productivity costs.

The Benefits of Vacation

Common sense would lead you to believe that having employees out of the office is bad for business – au contraire. When employees don’t step away from their post every once in a while, it can negatively impact their productivity and their health, both of which can have high financial consequences. According to Sharon Melnick, author of Success Under Stress, 80 percent of employees feel job-related stress, and 70 percent of doctor’s office visits are due to stress-related conditions. An employee’s time away on vacation is finite, however, mental illness or physical conditions that result from stress can linger and plague your workforce.

Below are just a few of the benefits of time off:

  • Increased productivity: According to research, employees are more productive after taking a vacation and report an increased sense of wellbeing. Employees with a post-vacation mindset often require less effort to accomplish their work. Additionally, they typically have a better perspective on problems that arise, are more creative, and are more motivated to achieve their goals. This rejuvenated mentality can also help reduce conflict and tension in the workplace.
  • Improved mental health: Studies have found that vacations can alleviate stress and help improve mood by removing individuals from stressful situations and environments. A study by Marshfield Clinic found that women who went on vacation less than every two years were more likely to experience elevated stress and suffer from depression than those who took time off at least twice a year.
  • Decreased heart disease risk: A study found that middle-aged men with a high risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) were less likely to die of CHD if they took annual vacations. And the famous Framingham Heart Study found that men were 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack if they didn’t take a vacation for several years. Women were almost eight times more likely to develop CHD or have a heart attack if they vacationed every six years or less, compared to women who took a vacation at least twice a year. This study even went as far to say that skipping even a single annual vacation can increase the risk of heart disease.

Tips for Encouraging Your Employees to Vacate the Workplace for Vacation

  • Cross-train your workforce. Many employees surveyed said they’re afraid to take time off because they feel that no one knows how to do their job, leaving a gap in their team. Make an effort to cross-train your employees so they can take the reins while co-workers are away.
  • Incentivize vacations. Many executives are beginning to fully grasp the benefits of their workers getting away and have started to incentivize vacations. Some companies have started providing bonuses for using vacation time in its entirety, while others have helped finance employees’ vacations. In your workplace, you could start by offering a yearlong raffle in which only employees who have taken a vacation can enter. The prize at the end of the year could be a travel-related gift card.
  • Remove the stigma of taking unpaid vacation days. If an employee needs some extra time off, be it for his (or her) mental or physical health, be receptive to the request.
  • Rethink your policy. If you don’t provide paid vacation, consider adding it as part of the total compensation package you offer your employees. Thoughtful vacation policies can increase employee retention. Many companies, such as Expedia and Netflix, are getting rid of vacation policies altogether and are encouraging their employees to discuss their vacation needs with their bosses. Another idea is to differentiate sick and vacation days to prevent employees from missing out on using paid time off because they’re setting days aside in case of illness.
  • Encourage employees to pull the plug. The majority of employees admit to logging in to work while they’re away. In a past post, we discussed the powerful role of corporate culture. Make it a faux pas to correspond while on vacation. Perhaps have managers check in with employees before an extended leave to bid them a good journey and reinforce the expectation that they do not have to log in. Many employees are addicted to their devices and email and feel guilty for being out of touch; alleviate their guilt.
  • Help your employees plan their trip. Launch an educational campaign that encourages employees to go on vacation and teach them how to go about it by sending emails with trip planning advice. A 2010 study found that not all post-vacationers were happier than those who skipped vacation. Upon close examination of the results, it was revealed that trips that were hectic due to poor planning, stressful logistics and other factors had a deleterious effect on the benefits of vacation. Vacation wasn’t the culprit; stress was. Assist your employees in creating a relaxing getaway.
  • Encourage employees to go abroad. Research suggests that people who travel abroad are more creative and have improved problem-solving capabilities. Exposure to new cultures and environments can lead to people viewing problems, including those that arise in business settings, from multiple points of view. A study from Twitter even found that users’ happiness tends to increase the farther posts are geotagged from their homes.
  • Introduce the concept of a staycation. A staycation involves taking a vacation from work while staying home. When employees can’t afford to get away, it doesn’t mean they should forgo their vacations. Though heading out of town is preferred, a staycation can still be an effective option as long as employees commit to relaxation and refrain from busying themselves with all the projects they’ve been meaning to get done around the house. You can provide your employees with relaxation tips and ideas for low-key activities around town, should they choose to stay home. Again, reinforce that even though they’re still in town, they’re not expected to log in. They need a mental break in order to return refreshed.

Vacation shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, but rather as one of the many ways you can invest in your health – your most valuable asset.