Vacation-challenged America

Americans may envy Europeans for their many days off, but how about using the ones they have?

A friend is vacationing this week at a monastery. She says she needs spiritual regeneration. Later, she'll take a month to visit family. This amount of time off work is possible, of course, only because she's European.

Many Americans envy Europeans for their generous vacation time, but would they even use it if they had it?

This year's annual vacation survey by Expedia.com, the travel company, shows that about a third of all working adults in the US don't take all the time they've earned – 14 days on average.

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Even when they do, are they really on vacation? Nearly a quarter of those who leave don't totally leave – they're still checking work e-mail or voice mail from under the beach umbrella (the exact figure is 23 percent, up markedly from 16 percent just two years ago).

The advice to "get a life" is common, but what if Americans just took their full two weeks? That could go a long way toward fulfilling the real meaning behind that pat phrase.

The European friend – who will remain nameless because she doesn't know she's being written about, and besides, why disturb her if she's on vacation? – has identified some important benefits of vacation: regeneration and reconnecting with family.

The family vacation seems to be going the way of the family dinner hour. Compared with 1970, a third fewer American families are vacationing together, according to "Take Back Your Time," a group that seeks to make three weeks of paid vacation a presidential campaign issue and a national law.

The US is the only industrialized nation that does not legally guarantee its workers paid vacation. US workers also receive the least vacation among such nations. In their "No-Vacation Nation" study in May, the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington reports that 1 in 4 private-sector workers gets no paid vacation or paid holidays. That includes part-time workers, about a third of whom do get paid vacation or holidays.

Both employers and employees need to sweep away the myths that they can't "afford" time off, resulting in many vacations being reduced to long weekends.

Rested workers are more productive workers. Productivity can increase by up to 60 percent in the month or two following a vacation, according to Iowa State University economics professor Wallace Huffman. Companies can improve employee creativity and reduce turnover by giving their employees a break.

One reason employees don't take the time they're due is that they don't see others taking it. That's when they need to remember the grade-school admonition of dear Mom: Just because everyone else is doing it (or not doing it), does that mean you should?

Employees find many other reasons to sell themselves short, according to Expedia.com. A common one is financial (12 percent of those surveyed say they hand back unused vacation time for cash). Others say it's too hard to schedule a vacation in advance (13 percent), or that work is just a fact of life and getting away from it is just not possible (10 percent).

But rest, like work, is a natural part of life. This summer, dive into a clear lake or stay home and visit all the museums you keep meaning to. Whatever you do, give yourself a break, and take a break.

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