If you find it hard to carve out time for family vacations, you are not alone. Americans are leaving more of their vacation time on the table, and even when they do get away, they often take work with them, recent findings show.
A survey on family vacations by Alamo Rent a Car found 40 percent who received paid vacation as a benefit did not use all of their time. Of that 40 percent, nearly half said they were simply too busy at work to take all their vacation days.
A separate study conducted last year by Oxford Economics for the US Travel Association found Americans are taking less vacation time than at any point in nearly four decades. Employees took an average of 16 days of vacation in 2013, compared to an average of 20.3 days as recently as 2000. Among employees with paid time off, almost five days went unused in 2013.
In the Alamo survey, half of respondents who took a vacation didn't unplug while away. One in four said they worked every day. This trend was strongest among millennials: 35 percent said they worked each day while on vacation, and 21 percent said they returned to work less productive.
If taking time off can cause some stress — thoughts about work piling up, reining in spending, keeping kids entertained — it may be worth keeping in mind the potential benefits to physical and mental health. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere found that participating in leisure activities, including vacationing, is associated with better physical functioning and greater life satisfaction. A 2000 study, which tracked a group of middle-age men at risk for coronary heart disease, found more frequent annual vacations were linked to lower mortality risk.
In a 2013 paper, Swedish and US researchers described a link between people vacationing and dispensations of antidepressants. The greater the number of people vacationing at the same time, the greater the exponential drop in prescriptions filled. (The study was conducted in Sweden, which has a national vacation policy and allows workers to take four consecutive weeks of paid vacation in the summer. The authors controlled for factors including daylight and temperature that could also affect antidepressant use.)
Being able to spend stretches of time with friends and family, reconnect with others who live far away, and lend support to others who may not be in the workforce, such as aging parents, allows the benefits of vacationing to spread throughout society, the researchers wrote. It also helps people to restore "resources" such as physical energy and concentration that work can deplete.
While we in the United States might not experience the same degree of benefit as workers in countries with more generous national policies, taking some basic steps can help people make the most of the vacation time they have. For one, try to keep technology use in check, said lead author Terry Hartig, an environmental psychology professor in the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University in Sweden.
"I think it's important for people to get away from e-mail, but of course, that can be challenging because people may feel a lot of pressure," he says. But just as people recognize the need to sleep, he adds, "it's important to take time for other forms of restoration, and to enjoy time off."