Last year, companies didn't have to worry all that much about scheduling around their workers' vacations. More than any year before, employees took shorter vacations, or put that relaxation time off completely. Not that employees were literally fearful of finding a pink slip upon returning from a week away, but there was a general sense of unease, of not wanting to fade from the boss's view by taking time off.

Some employees were afraid that because they were in high demand, filling in for laid-off co-workers, there just was not enough time to leave the office for a week to sip margaritas beachside.

But that all may change this summer, as hiring appears to be picking up, or as employees simply realize they have been through a stressful run of layoffs, were forced to work longer and harder and deserve some "now or never" R&R.

Michael, an accountant who works for a company in Bethesda that is under bankruptcy protection and asked that his last name not be used, said he and his wife plan to take a few long weekends away this summer despite his company's situation. He knows the company needs him for at least another year, so before his office is reduced to a skeleton crew, he will take some time for himself.

"If I had something to do or planned, I'd go ahead and do it regardless of what's going on here or elsewhere," he said.

According to a poll by Maritz Research Inc., 30 percent of 1,000 employed Americans say their work team is planning to hire someone soon. And 57 percent say their company is doing better than a year ago. "So what will be interesting is to track this, moving forward, and how that impacts people's interest in taking vacations," said Rick Garlick, director of strategic consulting with the Maritz Research Hospitality Group. "Until this point, people have been very paranoid, working hard to prove their worth. . . . Companies are cutting costs, sending jobs overseas. So you see how it impacts the need to take time off."

On Tuesday, AAA said that more people will travel this Memorial Day weekend than last, thanks to a recovering economy. According to an annual survey by the organization, 30.9 million people, up 3.4 percent from last year, will travel 50 miles or more by automobile for the long weekend. An additional 4.1 million plan to travel by plane, up 5.3 percent from last year.

"We're getting back to numbers that approximate pre-9/11," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

But in general, Americans' vacations have been shrinking, and that's not a good thing.

The average length of vacation time spent away from home was four days in 2003, compared with 5.4 nights in 1985 and more than a week 25 years ago, according to the Travel Industry Association.

By not taking time off, workers are making themselves sick, said Mel Borins, a family doctor in Toronto and author of "Go Away: Just for the Health of It."

He wrote that book after seeing countless patients whose headaches, rashes and neck pains went away after a vacation. Their recoveries weren't a shock to him, but he felt it was time to really shout out about the need to relax a little.

"When people are on vacation, their stress level decreases, burnout decreases, life satisfaction increases. And when they return to work, they are more interested in their work, job efficiency improves and absenteeism goes down after a vacation," Borins said.

Employers should "either let them take time off and enjoy themselves or they'll get sick and take time off anyway."

Overall, employers aren't cutting vacation policies, said Manny Avramidis, the American Management Association's senior vice president for global human resources. People are simply too paranoid to leave the office for long periods of time.

"Just in the last few years, the level of confidence in their employment [has dropped]," Avramidis said. "And the reality with downsizing is there is more responsibility. They simply can't get away from the office."

And when they do, they are hooked to the office anyway, by BlackBerry, e-mail, cell phones and every other toy that ties workers to the office today.

According to a yet-to-be-released survey by the American Management Association, 28 percent of 335 respondents said they will take more days off this summer than last summer, while 55 percent will take the same amount of time and 17 percent will take fewer days off. Last year, 14 percent of respondents said they would take fewer days off than in 2002. Meanwhile, according to OfficeTeam, an administrative professional temporary staffing service, 43 percent of 571 workers polled said the biggest mistake they made with their last vacation was they did not take enough time off.

Alice Cave will take the same vacation with her husband that they took last year. But the fact is, no matter what, they would take a vacation. "I think it's really important for us to manage the stress," said Cave, who works as a systems analyst at a technology company in Northern Virginia. "We don't worry about our jobs for that two weeks."

She and her husband, a software engineer, are taking a week at a music camp called Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, N.C. She takes song-writing classes; he plays his guitar. Then they hike in western North Carolina for a week.

"I usually feel really good when I'm gone. Then I come back and the first day of work is awful because of 10,000 e-mails piled up," she said. Still, she said she tries to "keep with me how I felt on vacation. . . . It helps you remember there's something out there besides the daily grind."

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her at lifeatwork@washpost.com.