Get Out of Town, Already

Leave the BlackBerry home this year -- break out of vacation deprivation and relax

If I had a dollar for each time in the past year I heard the words "I need a vacation" from a co-worker or friend, I'd have enough buckaroos to take that cruise, camping trip, or sojourn to South America that said friends and co-workers didn't. We all need vacations, we all deserve vacations, but we don't all take vacations.

In fact, many of us have trouble even putting aside a weekend for rest and relaxation because our jobs continue to tax us physically and emotionally well after Friday evening comes and goes. We're Americans: We work hard, we're dedicated, we're reliable. And we're going to give ourselves coronaries.

If you can't remember the last time you abandoned your business cell phone for a full day, or refused to check e-mail for a full week, you probably need to change that regime this year in favor of a little straight-up leisure.

Married to Work

Americans have trouble relaxing, and it shows. For starters, we get royally screwed with the number of vacation days our jobs allot us each year. According to a recent Vacation Deprivation survey commissioned by Expedia.com and conducted by Harris Interactive, Americans get an average of 12 vacation days a year, a mere pittance compared with other Western countries like France and Germany, which get 39 and 27, respectively.

But what's worse is that nearly a third of all Americans admit to not taking all of their vacation time; in fact, the über-ambitious workers in our country's competitive climate give up an average of three of their piddly 12 days per year -- that's 25 percent, people -- at an average financial worth of approximately $54 billion. We're throwing away a quarter of our own money. And if you think the situation is better here on the left coast, think again. We take fewer days off than our "uptight" East Coast counterparts.

So what are we trying to prove? According to Abby Snay, the executive director of Jewish Vocational Services, a local not-for-profit employment organization, our inability to unwind is, in part, a sign of the times.

"I think that among the reasons that people don't take as much vacation as they can is the onslaught of technology and the increasing demand in the workplace," she says. "We're always in touch and we're always available. It's kind of a new workplace machismo in which, to be a dedicated professional, you have to be available at all times. So, even when people do take vacations, they have their laptops and BlackBerrys with them."

Traveling with all of your business accouterments, says Snay, is not the best way to renew. And depriving yourself of a real time-out altogether can lead to burnout at both work and home.

Technology obsession in the workplace is not the only cause for our disastrous traveling track record. Kari Swartz, the product manager for leisure travel at Expedia.com, says that two of the big reasons folks neglect their off-time are that they truly feel they can't get away from their jobs, or they choose to cash out their vacation days (if their companies permit) and make a few bucks. Of course, those people are going to really need that extra dough to pay for all the therapy they'll require as a result of not knowing when to take a break.

Good Time off Equals Good Time On

If you're reading this and sighing because your company affords you no opportunity to take a hiatus, whether financially or workload-wise, it might be time to try to effect some change at work -- or look for a new job. There are actually many local companies that believe, rightly, that more paid time off the clock makes their employees better workers on the clock.

Snay's organization, JVS, is a prime example of a vacation-generous workplace, giving 20 days of vacation per year to new employees right off the bat, and forcing them to take it. Another, more corporate, workplace that sees the benefit in having well-rested workers is Wells Fargo, which gives its starting team members 20 to 25 days of Paid Time Off, which can be used for personal time at the employee's discretion, in addition to six common holidays.

According to Laura Hitchens, Wells Fargo's human resource manager for the San Francisco Bay region, it makes good business sense. By taking decent amounts of vacation time, she says, employees can "refresh and rejuvenate themselves on a regular basis, so that when they are present in the store they are able to deliver outstanding customer service. It really contributes to the business' bottom line from that standpoint, and it allows us to retain team members because they know that we care."

At both Wells Fargo and JVS, you cannot "cash in" vacation days; managers keep tabs on how much time off their supervisees are taking, and encourage the employees to take vacation when time banks get full to bursting.

If your company is stingy or mindless about R&R, try gently to clue it in to the benefits reaped when workers are well rested.

No Time, No Money

Perhaps you're hard-pressed to spend time and money on leisurely pursuits when rent-gathering feels like enough of a chore. We all get wiggy about spending, but that doesn't mean you should forego your much-needed respite. Vacations are like people -- they come in all shapes and sizes, and bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. Taking time off does not have to break the bank.

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