Overview:

For many of us, vacation is a joke. But when we don't take it seriously, we are deprived of the breaks we need to recharge and rejuvenate.

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We need it. We deserve it. But research shows we usually don’t take all that we have coming to us. And if we do there’s a good chance we spend much of it responding to work messages, ruminating over office problems, and experiencing all the attendant stress.

As summer sets in—prime season for getting away from work to relax, have fun, and be with people with whom we spend too little time—the message should be shouted from the rooftops:

Take vacation seriously. By actually taking it.

America has a vacation problem. For the most part, it’s not a matter of official employer policy. Despite the absence of mandatory PTO laws in this country, most jobs come with paid time off.

A LinkedIn survey finds that most professionals stay in contact with work by phone or email while they’re on vacation.

The problem is that for many of us it’s a joke. A LinkedIn survey finds that most professionals stay in contact with work by phone or email while they’re on vacation. Nearly 60 percent say they continue performing work tasks while on PTO “amid mounting pressure to always be on the job,” as CBS News puts it. According to a 2022 report by Qualtrics, roughly half of employed Americans work at least an hour a day during “vacation.” Only 27 percent use all the paid days off to which they are entitled.

Sure, technology makes it possible to stay in touch and get things done when we’re off the job. Rare is the spot anymore where you can’t get a cellphone signal. But just because we can stay in touch doesn’t mean we should.

What’s the big deal? you might ask. If you’re a workaholic employee or a demanding boss, you might scoff at the notion that there’s any harm in someone taking a bit of time before the beach or boat to answer a few emails and track key projects.

I know from ample experience. Doing those things detracts from the breaks we need from work, leaving us less rejuvenated when vacation is over. A peek at our inbox isn’t so harmless. There be dragons: old problems and new, veiled aspersions, triggers that activate pressure and frustration. Even after we’ve shut off the laptop and begun the day’s fun, those dragons continue breathing fire.

I understand why we work during PTO. In many workplace cultures, it’s a badge of honor, a testament to our importance and indispensability, that we have to work through vacation. No one wants to fall behind or appear insufficiently dedicated to the cause. No one wants to let down their colleagues. No one wants to appear replaceable. Or lazy.

The way work is, many projects have multiple contributors, each with a particular role and set of to-dos. Timelines can’t accommodate each person’s vacation. So, if a go-live date happens to fall on the week you scheduled your trip to the beach—months ago—tough luck. You’ll have to take a break from your break to execute your tasks and attend the big meeting.

Workplace culture invariably trumps workplace policy. Some managers speak with forked tongues: They’ll say: Of course you should take the vacation days promised to you in your employment agreement. But through their actions, which always speak louder than words, they’ll say: Sorry, no time is the right time for you to be away. They’ll say: Those who work through their vacations or max out their unused-PTO extensions will be rewarded with praise and promotions.

Solutions? Workers should encourage one another to treat vacation policies as more than a joke. Higher-ups and human resources departments should require middle managers to structure their teams and workflows—more cross-training, please—so that people can take vacations. Real vacations. Organizations must stop rewarding people for “presenteeism.”

If we feel obliged to justify vacation to ourselves or our supervisors, we can make the case on pragmatic grounds: We need to recharge so we can continue to produce the rest of the year.

If we want to go deeper, and I recommend that we do, we ought to think about what’s really important: Impressing our bosses and chasing the illusion of having everything under control at work? Or being totally present with the people with whom we’re spending our time off? And fully absorbing the beauty of the mountains or ocean to which we’ve traveled, or the delights of the backyards or local parks where we’re spending our days of respite?

“The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously wrote, “is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”

The late rabbi’s wisdom is actionable for the nonreligious, too, and it applies to vacation time as well that one day a week when the devout abstain from work. Do we live to work? Or work to live?

Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...