In Our View: Take Time Off You’re Owed

Survey underscores workplace stresses, importance of taking vacation days

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Work is hard. To quote a story from The Associated Press, “The American workplace is grueling, stressful and surprisingly hostile.”

That is the conclusion from a new study by the nonpartisan Rand Corp., Harvard University, and UCLA, which conducted an in-depth survey of more than 3,000 workers across regional and economic lines. The goal is to quantify the workplace experience for Americans and eventually help employers enhance that experience.

Yet while many Americans lament their workplace existence — nearly 20 percent, for example, say they face a hostile or threatening environment on the job — there also is evidence to contradict the notion that work is as soul-crushing as we sometimes profess.

That evidence? It comes from Project Time Off, a function of the U.S. Travel Association. According to Project Time Off, Americans are not particularly eager to use all the vacation time they are allotted, often choosing instead to stay on the job. Throughout the state of Washington, the organization concludes, 53 percent of employees fail to use all their vacation time. In Portland, where roughly 70,000 Clark County residents work, about 58 percent of employees do not use their allotted vacation.

Those numbers are similar to the national average, which amounts to some 662 million unused vacation days. As Katie Denis of Project Time Off told Philly.com: “People don’t want to return to mountains of work. Work is no longer a marathon, but a series of sprints, and you have to have recovery time.”

In other words, Americans are literally working themselves to death. Multiple studies have found that employees who take annual vacations are less likely to die from heart disease — a conclusion that applies to both men and women. Centerstone, a behavioral health network, has concluded, “Vacation helps shrink stress and anxiety while boosting the mental and physical health of the entire family.” And Forbes has reported that the benefits of taking vacation time include higher productivity, stronger workplace morale, and greater employee retention — in addition to the health benefits.

Meanwhile, the Rand study includes some notable conclusions:

• 55 percent of workers say they face “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions.

• Nearly three-quarters report they spend a significant amount of work time in “intense or repetitive physical” labor.

• And about half say they work on their own time to meet the demands of their job.

“I was surprised by how pressured and hectic the workplace is,” said lead author Nicole Maestas, a Harvard Medical School economist.

Most of us out there in the trenches will deem this unsurprising. The same can be said for findings that less-educated workers endure more difficult conditions on the job. If you are unhappy with your employment, develop skills that provide you with more options.

Still, there are some lessons for employers. The percentage of Americans working or looking for work has not returned to pre-recession levels, even as many employers report being unable to fill available jobs. Maestas said: “Working conditions really do matter.”

In the end, the key is to improve workplace conditions. While no job is perfect, employees can help themselves by using their available vacation time.