On the Clock

The Jay Leno Effect: When You Don’t Take Vacations

Even with unlimited vacation policies cropping up, many people are shunning vacations. Is that bad for both employees and companies alike?

4 min read

Most people know comedian Jay Leno for his quick wit, prominent jaw, and panache for cars (he owns more than 250). What he isn’t as known for? Being a vacation naysayer. As he once told GQ magazine, “I’m not a vacation guy. Send me to Hawaii to build a bridge.”

August may be the prime vacation month, but an alarming number of workers are still adopting the Leno philosophy and letting paid vacation fall to the wayside. And in this case, even in a robust job market, fear turns out to be the dominant factor. According to the US Travel Association, 52% of employees had unused vacation at the end of last year—the equivalent of about 705 million unused vacation days. When asked why they opted to forgo a beach week or wine-country tour, the top replies from more than 4,000 respondents were “fear of being replaceable” and “my workload is too heavy.”

“Last year, employees left behind 705 million unused vacation days.”

“The fact that we can be connected all the time is unhelpful because it doesn’t allow us to disconnect and go away,” says Stacey Perkins, a Korn Ferry career coach in Dallas. “The benefits of taking vacation far outweigh the downsides, but people lose sight of that.”

Indeed, there are countless studies that show there’s a reason companies give you vacation: Most employees come back less stressed and often have a better outlook on work. But growing competition and fear have led more people to skip that—starting, ironically enough, with millennials. According to the US Travel Association, millennials are leading the charge when it comes to forgoing vacations because they fear they would appear disloyal or lose out on a raise or promotion (even though studies show you’re more likely to get a promotion or raise if you do take time off). “The ‘entitled millennial’ narrative is dead wrong when it comes to vacation,” concluded the report’s author, Katie Denis. “Millennials are developing vacation attitudes that will define and negatively affect America’s work culture.” Case in point: Perkins says she’s recently had several older clients who are afraid of taking their vacations because they think they’ll come back and not have a job thanks to “overly ambitious” millennials. Beyond individual concerns, the lack of vacation is also causing a larger issue for companies that many employees, and managers, don’t consider: Firms aren’t learning how to cope without certain people. “If I make myself indispensable at work, that’s a problem not just for me but also for work,” says Alexander Lowry, executive director of the Master of Science in Financial Analysis program at Gordon College in Massachusetts. “It can be really good for a business to learn to do without someone and develop a mechanism for handing over responsibilities and giving other people the chance to step up and grow.”

You can lessen your vacation guilt by starting with timing. After all, a tax preparer isn’t going to go anywhere in March, and late July and August still seem to be the desirable time slots for C-suite execs to head out of town. If you prefer to work when your boss is out of the office, find out when she’s headed to ski for a week. And if you’re a manager, ask your direct reports to try to estimate when they’ll be taking their vacations. That way you’re telling them it’s OK to take time off, and you can manage the schedule to ensure someone is always available.

It’s also important to know your vacation style. Ever since BlackBerry made staying in touch with the office a de facto expectation, it has become nearly impossible to completely unplug, even if you’re on safari in the middle of Africa. But there are some people who prefer to completely do just that and come back to an inbox filled with 500 or more emails. Others feel anxiety lurking at the mere thought of hundreds of unread emails, and therefore opt to duck into a room for 30 minutes each day before continuing their fly-fishing expedition to scan messages and ensure there are no fires to put out.

Lowry once watched a CEO who had just come back from a week of vacation say, “Watch this.” With a grin on his face, he proceeded to select all his new emails—about 100,000, Lowry recalls—and press delete. His reasoning? “He said, ‘This will teach people if they really need me they’ll email me again,’” Lowry recalls.

And while it’s always a rush to finish up projects before you put on your out-of-office reminder, career consultants say it’s best to have a quick meeting with managers and colleagues before you step out to discuss who is covering your duties. That way, everyone has comfort—and you really can avoid thinking about work while sailing in Portofino.

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