Take your vacation: Why Henry Ford CEO Nancy Schlichting endorses getaways

The United States is the only developed country that doesn't mandate paid time off, and large proportions of American workers that are allotted vacation days don't even use them.

In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, U.S. workers only used 77 percent of their paid time off, marking the lowest use of vacation days in four decades. According to the study by Oxford Economics, U.S. workers forfeited 169 million vacation days, totaling $52.4 billion in lost benefits.

Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, says one of the keys to success in any job is taking vacations. She holds the Nancy Schlichtingsame view for workers in all roles — from CEO to manager to frontline employee.

"I've taken all of my vacation days for the last 35 years," says Ms. Schlichting. "Life is short — it's finite and time is the one resource that is equal to everyone. Having time for travel, family events and spending time with friends has been absolutely essential to keeping some balance in my life."

This CEO's vacation philosophy

Ms. Schlichting says vacation days are "there for a reason," and those who choose to work through them run the risk of letting their job overwhelm their lives. Particularly in healthcare, the nature of the work is physically, mentally and emotionally draining.

"It is important to have that time to recharge your battery," she says. "There is a high burnout rate in many of our jobs in healthcare, but you have less of a chance of burning out if you're taking vacations and have time to do other things."

While establishing a work-life balance requires continual effort and discipline, allotted paid time off days represent a perfect opportunity for engaging in hobbies, activities or travel — things many working folks often compromise for their jobs.

Additionally, studies on the effects of vacation days on individual employees and companies have found significant benefits associated with taking time off. According to Ernst & Young, employees who take more days off usually have better performance reviews. Increased vacation time was also found to help reduce employee turnover, which translates to saving companies the money required to recruit and train new workers. Research from The Daniel Group also found vacations help employees increase productivity.

Despite these benefits, many working people — executives and other senior leaders in particular — find the idea of taking several consecutive days off unfathomable. They feel they cannot accomplish all of their work if they take time off, they are wary of appearing disengaged or uncommitted to their job, or they are worried their company will collapse under a crisis without them there.

Ms. Schlichting begs to differ.

"Vacation days are intended to reward seniority in the organization, which is why employees get more as they move up," she says. "I worry about the people who say they can't take a vacation. Why can't they? You start to worry that they aren't leaving work because they have something to protect, as opposed to feeling good about taking time off. The way I look at it: For executives, if they're doing their job really well, they should be able to take time off."

Scott Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting Group, author, speaker and executive coach, recently penned an article in the Harvard Business Review on practical solutions for some of the most common anxieties leaders face when considering taking a vacation.

"To be able to truly go on vacation you need to be convinced that the world can do without you during that time," Mr. Edinger wrote. "I'm not saying you don't make a difference, or even that you won't be missed. But I am suggesting any negative impact will be modest and quickly ameliorated upon your return."

Determine the right degree of disconnect

Another obstacle preventing many people in leadership roles from reaping the benefits of a vacation, even if they do take them, is their inability to disconnect from digital communication. Whether out of habit or perceived need, continually checking emails, voicemails and other types of communication results in engaging in work while they should be relaxing and "recharging their battery," as Ms. Schlichting puts it.

"The truth is it's getting harder to totally disconnect," says Ms. Schlichting. "I used to just have a regular phone and a computer. Now I have a phone that has everything on it, and I only have one email address. It's challenging — I might get an email from a family member, but at the same time then I'm looking at everything else that's coming through."

To avoid becoming consumed by email during vacations, Ms. Schlichting set a rule to help her manage the time she spends on work-related communication: She only checks and responds to emails during a designated time period, usually in the morning, and then doesn't check again for the rest of the day. If someone at Henry Ford Health System really needs her, they know to call instead of email.

In the Harvard Business Review, Mr. Edinger offers a similar suggestion. It is not always entirely necessary to completely unplug from work, especially if doing so would turn a vacation into an anxiety trip. Occasionally — such as during a designated hour in the morning — it is OK to screen emails for critical issues. However, it is important to stick to these rules. For example, Mr. Edinger said when on a recent vacation with his family, he told his 11-year-old to hold onto his phone and only give it to him when it was necessary to check something online related to their trivia game or vacation plans.

Treat vacations as an investment

Taking advantage of paid time off is really an investment in one's quality of life. Today, most people spend the majority of their lives working to ensure they and their loved ones can live as comfortably and happily as possible. Vacations are arguably just as important, for it is during these breaks individuals can spend valuable time with family, embrace their hobbies and passions outside of the office and truly rejuvenate.

"I'm at the point where I'm getting near retirement," says Ms. Schlichting. "I think it's great I'm able to keep interests and hobbies and aspects outside of work in play — otherwise I'd get to retirement and all I'd have done in my life is work."

Ms. Schlichting loves to travel. Italy and France are two of her favorite destinations, but her second home in the Traverse City area of Michigan is another cherished getaway. While traveling makes time off really feel like a vacation, to Ms. Schlichting, the best part of taking a break from work is having the time — and luxury — to have a relaxing, long lunch.

"For me, lunch is almost always on the run, usually while I'm in a meeting with someone. It's not a very relaxing experience. But on vacation, I can have a nice lunch and a glass of wine. It's really the most luxurious part of my vacation."

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