March 16, 2014

If your boss added a few hundred extra dollars to your paycheck one week — just for showing up — would you turn it down? At the end of the year, would you write him or her a refund check for that bonus? Would you brag to friends about not taking it?

The answer for most of us would be “no” or “are you crazy?”

Now, let’s change the variable from “money” to “days off.” The average American worker leaves three vacation days unused every year. That’s three full days that workers have earned but choose to refund to their employers.

Why? That’s a great question.

It’s a question examined thoroughly in a just-released report by Oxford Economics for The U.S. Travel Association. Researchers found: “Despite an intrinsic understanding that using the leave they’ve earned delivers considerable personal and professional benefits, Americans left an average of 3.2 [paid time off] days on the table in 2013, totaling 429 million unused days among U.S. workers.”

Especially at a time when workers in every field and at every pay grade report high levels of stress and the need for more balance in their lives, our failure to use our vacation days is strange.

Of course, the hotel industry is among those that would benefit from more people going on vacations. But it is not just the hotel industry that would benefit. The report suggests $160 billion dollars are not flowing through our economy because of this unused time. If that money had been spent, it would have supported 1.2 million jobs in industries like retail, manufacturing and transportation.

I find this research illuminating for broader reasons. Work is essential to our economy and to our society. It is not, however, all we should do. No matter what level employee or how crucial one is to a team or a mission, we need time away to be effective when we are at work and, of course, we are also important to people outside our offices.

Three days spread over a year may not seem like all that much. On the other hand, I just spent one day at home, with time for long walks with the dog, and a chance to cook a nice meal and it was extraordinarily refreshing.

Whether you use the time to be with family or friends, watch a sunset, read a book or maybe travel, use it. You have earned it. It will be good for you and good for our economy.

Arne Sorenson is the president and chief executive at Bethesda-based Marriott International. This commentary is adapted from his post on LinkedIn.

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