Are we taking enough vacations?

Summer is here, which means it’s vacation time! Unless you’ve decided you’re not really going to take a vacation this year. Or maybe you’ll go, but with your BlackBerry or iPhone hooked to your belt. That could cost you more than you might imagine.

Comparing ourselves to others can sometimes be gratifying. But not when it comes to paid vacation days! Take a look:

Number of guaranteed paid vacation days for employees

As you can see, the only developed country that offers working people fewer paid vacation days than Canada is the United States, where no law obliges employers to give their employees paid vacation time. Of course, spending three days in heavy traffic between Paris and the Côte d'Azur may not be your idea of the perfect vacation, but still…the French, the Germans and other Europeans get up to three times as many days to recharge their batteries as we poor Canadians.

Does it matter?

And how! The lack of rest can be extremely costly to individuals and society.

Beyond the numbers

If you’ve had a good job for a number of years, you probably get more than two weeks’ paid vacation every year. But that doesn’t mean much if you don’t use all the time to which you are entitled.

Two years ago, an Expedia survey showed that nearly one third of Canadians were not planning to use all their vacation time that year. And every year, Americans fail to use at least three of their precious paid vacation days. In fact, a Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows that, over 30 years, the percentage of employees who, in April of each year, do not plan to take any vacation time in the next six months rose from 39% to 49%. That’s just about half of them!

The trend is even more pronounced among business owners and senior executives, as well as in small and medium-sized enterprises, where each person is so important to daily operations that everyone is expected to be reachable at all times, thanks to those electronic leashes we call smart phones.

In other words, even on vacation we’re not on vacation.

When reality catches up

The phenomenon is so widespread that it has attracted the attention of numerous researchers and health experts over the past decade. Their conclusions are far from reassuring:

  • On average, a man who doesn’t take any real vacation for five years in a row is 30% more likely to have a heart attack.
  • A woman who takes vacation time less than once every six years is eight times more likely to suffer from heart disease.
  • Overall, people who don’t take annual vacations increase their risk of dying prematurely by 21%.

That’s pretty disturbing data.

Health risk = financial risk

We probably didn’t need scientific studies to remind us that taking vacations is good for our health. But such studies do point out the potential consequences of not taking time off – beyond ordinary fatigue, that is. The lack of vacation time can lead to health issues that are serious enough to put people out of commission and prevent them from meeting their financial obligations, such as making mortgage and other loan payments, providing for their family, paying children’s tuition fees, and so on.

Studies also highlight the importance – for anyone – of income protection in case of a health problem, particularly if work responsibilities don’t allow for all the time people need to fully recharge their batteries. This is no doubt the reason for the growing popularity of disability, critical illness and other similar insurance policies in recent years.

There’s still hope…

Fortunately, the beneficial effects of vacation can be felt very quickly. In 2006, research commissioned by Air New Zealand – who better than an airline company to study vacations! – shows that after just three days off, people slept an average of one hour longer than usual and that this deeper, restorative sleep translated into an 80% improvement in reaction time to external stimuli.

At least three weeks

Psychologists believe that it takes at least three weeks of consecutive vacation time, with no work contact, to really recuperate, physically and mentally. Unfortunately, that’s increasingly difficult to achieve, given the growing convergence of work and entertainment functions on today’s smart phones. Sure, you may just be listening to music on iTunes, but can you really resist the urge to check your email afterward?

These early days of summer are the perfect time to question ourselves about how we manage our free time and, consequently, our health. Balancing work and leisure has been a hot topic in recent years, but sometimes it seems as though that balance was never more precarious. Do we really need to wait until a financial services professional reminds us that the first step in a good financial security plan is taking care of ourselves?

By the way, when was your last three-week vacation?