Use All of Your PTO Days — It’s Extremely Good for Your Health

When’s the last time you took a few days off from work? Paid time off (PTO) days can feel like rare, forbidden fruit in corporate America. Even when they’re available to use, people often feel concerned that they’re too busy or that using the days will negatively affect their career advancement. Plus, vacations can be expensive. But studies show that you can’t afford not to take time off — using your PTO days can be extremely beneficial for your health and well-being.

Health risks associated with not using PTO days

One recent study showed that “people who vacationed more frequently in the past 12 months have a lowered risk for metabolic syndrome and metabolic symptoms” — symptoms that increase risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. 

Researchers found that participants who took no vacation had a 47 percent probability of meeting the criteria for metabolic syndrome, while… those who took the maximum 15 vacations faced only a 1 percent probability of developing metabolic syndrome.”

A different study, published in 2000 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, showed that a higher frequency of vacations was related to lower risk of coronary heart disease, specifically, and lower risk of mortality of all causes. 

Other research has also shown that time off of work reduces risk of heart attacks and is valuable for mental health.

So, there’s a clear physical health benefit to using PTO days — likely related to recuperating from stress experienced at the office.

Unused PTO days

I surveyed Twitter this week to see how people are utilizing their PTO days. This was not a scientific study by any means, but I was curious to see where others in the personal finance blogging community stood.

number of vacations

Of the 100+ full-time workers that participated, 21% had taken no vacations in the last year while another 26% had only taken one. 25% of participants had taken 2 vacations while the final 28% took 3 or more.

I also asked if people were using all of their PTO days, or if they were leaving days on the table.

used all vacation days?

76% of respondents had unused vacation days left over last year. 

This trend is not limited to my Twitter followers, though, as the U.S. Travel Association found that more than half of Americans are not using all of their paid time off. This is alarming.

In my own career, I have consistently had managers that encouraged me to use all of my PTO days. I assumed that encouragement was normal across the national corporate landscape, but I’m learning that may not be the case. If you find that your company discourages vacation time, that should be a red flag — you may even want to consider a job change.

Why are people tempted to not use their PTO days?

There are many reasons why people choose to not fully utilize vacation time. 

Work productivity

One concern is that work is too busy or your team couldn’t function without you. Research does not support this claim. In fact, Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One has the Time, says that people who do not take time off are “sicker, less productive, stressed, and more anxious and depressed—that affects your work as well.”

A 2016 report found that “workers who took 11 or more vacation days were more likely to have received a raise or a bonus in the previous three years than workers who took 10 or fewer days.” 

The European Union’s Working Time Directive guarantees EU workers at least 20 paid vacation days per year. The U.S. has no such federal minimum PTO policy. Yet, 9 of the 10 most productive countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development were in Europe (out of 36 OECD member countries). There may be other factors involved here but, clearly, more PTO days does not cripple a workforce.

Cost

The word “vacation” can have some pricey thought associations — white sand beaches, poolside resorts, or week-long cruises. But taking time off of work doesn’t have to be expensive.

The writer of the Australian blog Sustainable Living spends vacation time camping… for free!

Michael from Your Money Geek takes “staycations” with his family. De-stressing from work doesn’t have to necessarily involve travel.

Company policies on vacation time can vary greatly. Kathy from Baby Boomer Super Saver values PTO so highly that she works overtime so she can earn additional days off from her employer. This year, she was able to take off to travel to Greece, Denmark, and Brazil. 

No PTO days

I’ve been focusing on the traditional fixed PTO days corporate structure, but I recognize that not all employers use that system.

The writer at Yolo to Fire shares that she has “unlimited” PTO days, which can be a challenge to define and manage. I can see how this would quickly become a problem.

At first glance, unlimited PTO days sounds amazing — you could take time off as often as you want, right? But unlimited PTO may feel like no PTO. If you don’t have an agreed-upon number of vacation days, there are no guarantees. Each request for time off can become an awkward negotiation with management, if your boss is not an empathetic person.

Others may work hourly or project-based jobs that do not provide PTO at all.

Both of these situations put employees in murky waters, but I believe they’re worth navigating and to make time off a priority. 

Remember that work is not what’s most important in life

While trying to pay bills, build wealth, and save for early retirement it can be tempting to try to push through consecutive months or years at the office to advance your career. But it’s clear from these studies that avoiding breaks from work seriously increases health risks and offers minimal productivity advantages.

Much like the research that suggests that working longer may decrease your life expectancy, it appears that moderation wins out when it comes to vacation time, too.

Make a point to identify your long-term goals for your life. What relationships, causes, and projects are important to you? Spend time and money on what you value most — not just later, but now. Money is not what’s most important in life, anyway, so it’s okay to treat yourself occasionally. 

This research has only further piqued my interest in non-traditional retirement planning. Taking mini retirements or transitioning intentionally to part-time work before standard retirement age are two options to inject more flexibility and free time into your life.

What are you prioritizing in your life?

Do you have a vacation planned? If not, what steps do you need to take this week to get one on the calendar?

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