In a recent email, a friend lamented that he was “losing a week of vac because there’s no point in taking it right now. Work is the only thing I have to do!”
That’s “vac,” as in vacation. Though his company allows employees to hold over last year’s unused days for several months, this year he’s leaving time off — essentially money — on the table.
For those privileged enough to do so, staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic also means working from home. Whether it’s in a dedicated room, on a bed with pillows for a desk, or at a coffee table with an extension cord, we’re essentially living in our workplaces. Add to the mix children, spouses or partners, and pets, all with their own needs and anxieties, and there’s no defining line between where we live and where we earn a living.
Yet it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a suit or sweatpants, working from home is still work. Take your vacation.
We need them more than ever. For those working from home, the length of the average workday in the United States has jumped a stunning 40 percent, from eight hours to 11 hours a day, according to NordVPN, a company that specializes in digital privacy. That’s the greatest increase worldwide since stay-at-home orders became the norm. On average, I now start working about two hours earlier than I did when my days began with having breakfast and making lunch, getting dressed, maneuvering around a bathroom not built for two, and dealing with the capriciousness of public transportation.
When commuting now means moving from one room to another — if at all — that extra time is usually filled with work. However grounding it may seem, it’s can also be an unexpected grind.
Of course, if you have paid vacation time, you should count your blessings. Nearly 25 percent of workers in America have no compensated time off, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Ours is the only nation with an advanced economy that does not federally guarantee paid vacation time. (This country’s dearth of paid sick time for workers is a whole separate shame.)
By comparison, workers in France and the United Kingdom receive 30 and 20 mandated vacation days, respectively. Here, vacation time is negotiated and regarded as a perk bequeathed by employers. Once, I was so excited to get a job I wanted, I forgot to ask about vacation time. I got none.
Even those with paid vacation time rarely take all of it. In a 2019 report, CEPR called the United States “No-vacation nation.” According to the US Travel Association, workers left 768 million days of paid time off unused in 2018, with more than 55 percent of Americans neglecting to use all of their vacation time.
Among the reasons given: fear of bosses’ disapproval, being viewed as easily replaced or unworthy of promotions, and concerns about deadlines piling up.
This fixation with work comes with consequences. A WebMD survey found that 40 percent of respondents said they suffered from work-related stress; 25 percent named work as their leading cause of stress. It’s already well documented that stress has an impact on our physical and mental health. And that was before coronavirus upended every aspect of our lives.
In five weeks, about 26 million people have filed unemployment claims, and that probably doesn’t reflect the total number of people who’ve lost jobs as states have restricted businesses. If workers generally felt uncomfortable about taking vacation before, those who still have jobs may feel that taking a break now, even when they are entitled to it, is foolhardy and indulgent.
With many of us sheltering at home during this pandemic, vacation is likely the last thing on our minds. We can’t load up the car and get away for a few days, book a flight to a bucket-list destination, or visit family or friends. In this period of uncertainty and despair, vacations mean more than travel and curated photos to post on social media.
Time away from work is necessary self-care. Any planned break affords us a period of rejuvenation, and that replenishment can lead to more productivity back on the job. It is nourishment for our souls, professionally as well as personally. Taking a break can also alleviate the inevitable burnout some are likely experiencing.
For the duration of this public health crisis, many employers will get more — much of it unpaid — from their workers. We are at home, but this is not a sabbatical. Don’t leave your vacations on the table. You’ve worked for it, and it is owed to you. In these difficult and disorienting times, a vacation taken is not a vacation wasted.
Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.