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Finding Work-Life Balance: Why We Must Use That Vacation Time

By: David Taylor III, MSN, RN, CNOR

November 25, 2020

It’s time for some vacation. When was the last time you actually took a vacation where you were totally disconnected from work and did not require you to answer your phone or respond to email? It was likely some time ago, at least according to statistics. It’s bad enough that we may show up to work early to get stuff done before the workday starts (and maybe even stay late), squeeze our meals in-between harried work tasks, and scramble to respond to requests and demands throughout an already backlogged day. If you’re in a leadership role, you may find yourself quickly eating lunch at your desk while you respond to countless emails. Depending on our positions, many of us find ourselves checking and responding to emails and answering calls long after we’ve technically left work. Our work culture never seems to hit the pause button, and we feel obliged because “everyone else is doing it.” The sad reality, though, is we’re just not taking time to rest and relax from the rigors or work – and it’s costing us, our health and the economy dearly. In the US alone, guaranteed paid time off (PTO) is not protected by law. It is a key component of most workers benefits package that organizations use to attract qualified staff. Nearly 75% of employees in the US workforce earn PTO, yet a majority are not taking advantage of this benefit. A comprehensive study by Oxford Economics found that 40% of Americans ended 2013 with unused PTO.1

Younger workers are finding it even more difficult to leave their work behind at the end of their shift. Of the Millennials polled, 34% reported working every day, even when off the clock. And even though they worked while technically on PTO, they felt less productive upon returning to work. The reason? Feeling guilty for taking time off.2

It appears it’s only getting worse. A record-breaking 768 million PTO days were left unused by US employees in 2018, up 9% from the previous year. Of that number 236 million were forfeited altogether. In all, workers lost $65.5 billion in benefits3 and US companies were hampered with $224 billion in unused vacation time. Putting it another way, US companies’ liability due to unused PTO is equivalent to approximately half the size of the current US federal deficit, 24 times the annual revenue of the NFL, and larger than the Gross State Product of half the states in the US. Per employee, the average liability can range from $1,898 to $12,000.4 The fact that Americans cannot seem to unplug from work when they should be recharging is detrimental to one’s health (and that ups the risks for their employers, too). Those who have not taken time off for over a year can increase their risk for a heart disease or a fatal heart condition. The number of hours spent working without a true break (PTO) also increases the risk for depression. In addition, sleep quality and memory can become impaired, increasing the risk for diabetes and a host of other health conditions.5-8 A Finnish study reports the ideal vacation should last eight days. This amount of time allows the individual time for rest, relaxation, and enjoyment – without creating too much time to become bored. In reality, we should be able to be away from the workplace for this amount of time without worry of too much work accumulating (emails, phone messages and projects) once back to work. Plus, when we plan our vacation in advance, we can accomplish the tasks we know will be due while you are away before we even take that PTO. A proactive approach can dramatically decrease the amount of catching up we have to do when we return.9 Aside from the duration of our vacation, how we choose to relax and renew can offer more benefits. The best types of vacations are ones that incorporate relaxation with learning something new. Taking a yoga class, going on a guided hike, or learning to surf can increase relaxation, which will positively affect our mental and physical health and attitude.

Some companies are taking a stand and changing the way they think when it comes to work-life balance. Take Japan, a country that prides itself on working hard. Microsoft tried a four-day workweek and productivity jumped nearly 40%. In addition to working fewer hours, the management team advocated for less meetings and responses to emails. When meetings did occur, they urged their staff to limit them to 30 minutes. The results are leading other businesses to look for solutions and offer greater flexibility to their workers.10

Vacations have such a positive impact on productivity and absenteeism rates that some companies actually pay their employees to take time off. These forward-thinking organizations understand that unplugging from the duties and stresses of work while on PTO is the key to boosting morale, increasing productivity, and elevating employee retention and recruitment.


The stressors of work are only amplified when we do not take the time to find work-life balance. The health benefits alone make a great case for scheduling time off. Our vacations need not be elaborate to reap huge benefits. Even turning off the phone and computer while staying home can prove inspiring and remind us that we are more than just workers.


  1. An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S. Implications for employees, companies, and the economy. https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Vv7wa0LU1ysJ:https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/publication/download/252297+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari.
  2. New Survey Reports 4 in 10 Americans Leave Paid Vacation Days on the Table. https://www.alamo.com/en_US/car-rental/scenic-route/family-travel/unused-vacation-days.html.
  3. Study: A Record 768 Million U.S. Vacation Days Went Unused in ‘18, Opportunity Cost in the Billions. https://www.ustravel.org/press/study-record-768-million-us-vacation-days-went-unused-18-opportunity-cost-billions.
  4. Avoid the Hidden Costs of Unused Paid Time Off. https://www.visier.com/clarity/avoid-the-hidden-costs-of-unused-paid-time-off/.
  5. Working Long Hours Raises Heart Attack Risk. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2011/apr/working-long-hours-raises-heart-attack-risk.
  6. Revealed: What Happens to Your Physical and Mental Health If You Don’t Take Enough Holiday. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3226679/What-happens-physical-mental-health-don-t-holiday-note-56-Americans-didn-t-vacation-year.html#:~:text=The%20test%20found%20those%20who,had%20higher%20levels%20of%20stress.
  7. This Is What 365 Days without a Vacation Does to Your Health. https://qz.com/485226/this-is-what-365-days- without-a-vacation-does-to-your- health/.
  8. The Top 10 Leading Causes of Death in the United States. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/282929.php.
  9. Science Reveals Just How Long Your Vacation Should Be. https://www.liligo.com/travel-edition/science-reveals-just-how-long-your-vacation-should-be-31753.html.
  10. Microsoft Tried a 4-day Workweek in Japan. Productivity Jumped 40%. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/04/tech/microsoft-japan-workweek-productivity/index.html.

David L. Taylor III, MSN, RN, CNOR, is an independent hospital and ambulatory surgery center consultant and the principal of Resolute Advisory Group, LLC, a health care consulting firm in San Antonio. He has served as an IAHCSMM columnist since 2019. For more information email David@ResoluteAdvisoryGroup.com