The United States is the only developed country that does not legally require paid vacation days or holidays off. By law, every single country in the European Union, for example, has at least four weeks of paid time off, while a quarter of Americans aren’t afforded a single day. That said, most Americans don’t even take days off when they are offered—though we should be taking the time to travel.
From 1978 to 2000, the average worker took 20.3 days off. In 2000, just as the oldest millennials—those born around 1980—began entering the workforce, burgeoning student loan debt coupled with the onset of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression turned millennials into self-prescribed “work martyrs.” We worry that no one could do our jobs while we’re away and, if that’s not the case, we’re thus replaceable.
More specifically, high stress, guilt and workload concerns are primarily keeping women from using their time off, according to Project: Time Off’s report, State of American Vacation 2017. Women report experiencing more stress than men at work (74 percent to 67 percent), and are more likely to say that guilt (25 percent to 20 percent) and the mountain of work to which they’d return (46 percent to 40 percent) hold them back from vacationing. They also worry more than men about vacation making them seem less committed to their jobs (28 percent to 25 percent).
The fallacy that “work ethic” and “work martyrdom” are synonymous is pervasive, though toxic. The fact is that employees who don’t use their allotted time off are not always more invested; instead, they’re no more likely to get promotions and actually less likely to receive raises or bonuses.
In 2016, the average US employee took 16.8 days of vacation, which is indeed up from 2015’s 16.2 days per year. But the percentage represents only an additional half day; workers still left 662 million vacation days unused. The more we take advantage of those days to travel, the better employees we are. Simply: The best of us are those donning beat-up backpacks carrying passports full of stamps. Here’s why.
Project: Time Off senior director and report author, Katie Denis, says that the increase in usage of paid time off in 2016 provided an estimated $37 billion total impact to the US economy. But more than half (54 percent) of employees still ended the year with unused time and these forfeited days cost an estimated $66.4 billion in lost benefits, or $604 per employee. Project: Time Off estimates the potential to create 1.8 million jobs and generate $70 billion in additional income for American workers if they actually took advantage of their vacation time.
Many self-prescribed work martyrs identify so strongly with their work that they’re compelled to work all the time. It becomes addictive when increasing efficacy on the job provides feelings of self-worth that they don’t find elsewhere, simply because they’ve lost sight of non-work related passions. Vacationing to do the things we love promotes a renewed sense of purpose outside of the office, allows time for otherwise neglected self-care rituals like much-needed sleep and relieves stress, which reduces the risk of developing both mental and physical health risks over time.
Nothing revives childlike wonder like being in a place where you’re ignorant of almost everything, can’t speak the language and are equipped with only the most rudimentary sense of how things work. You’re forced to communicate in ways beyond words, which connects humans on a level that doesn’t divide us by native tongue. And when you return knowing how to seamlessly interact with anyone anywhere, the world suddenly seems borderless. Travelers know how to communicate with anyone, including the CEOs of multimillion-dollar corporations, regardless of status, age or ethnicity, because they know how to find common grounds with others. This isn’t only critical for communication purposes, but it’s also vital to company culture because with communication comes respect and empathy.
According to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the US,” commissioned by the US Travel Association, taking time off leads to higher productivity and overall morale—which, in turn, naturally leads to greater employee retention. American workers who succumb to various pressures—self-imposed or otherwise—are wrongfully deemed to be ahead of the game; in reality, they’re worn out, working at slower paces and don’t have the promise of a reward like vacation to keep them going. A 2011 Intuit study showed that 82 percent of small business owners (who usually take the least time off of anyone) experienced an increase in job performance upon their return to work, and that renewed energy was contagious.
First and foremost, a traveler is financially disciplined. Most travelers self-fund their trips, which means making sacrifices to reach financial goals—and, of course, understanding the significance of monetary goals and committing to them is invaluable in the workplace. Those who travel long-term have only managed to do so because they know how to budget, trade skills for things like room and board, and think outside the box to prolong their journeys—all sought-after skills. Secondly, travelers are decision-makers who manage time wisely. Traveling is a lot about scheduling to fit in plans and make the most of a new place. It’s about making decisions—where to go, when to go, how to go and with whom—identifying what you want to get out of a place, and making the decisions that’ll cultivate those experiences. The ability to be decisive and take any potential consequences in stride is an asset in the working world.
Travelers have been stranded after missed flights; they’ve hopped on the wrong trains because they couldn’t read the signage; they’ve gotten lost albeit on purpose or entirely on accident. Traveling—especially solo—means you have only yourself on which to rely; you have to have your own back, trust your own instincts and be your own pilot and co-pilot. You’re forced to solve problems under pressure because you know full-well that waiting for someone else to deliver solutions is a fruitless endeavor. You learn to expect the unexpected, and that all translates seamlessly into the professional workspace.
We travel to learn—what other cultures eat, how they dance, why they pray. And, for many, travel becomes a cyclic, unabated addiction: the more they travel, the more they learn, the more they want to travel. The more they do, they realize how impossibly big and, simultaneously, surprisingly small the world is; they’re humbled by what they’ve seen and understand that they’re not the biggest fish in the sea—there’s always room to grow. A love of learning is a quality employers seek. And because absence makes the heart grow fonder, time out of the office helps employees rediscover their interests and motivation in learning more about their work.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.