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by ERIN WHITE | March 31, 2009


Katherine Garrigan has worked full time at a Chicago museum for nearly two years. But during that time the 24-year-old has taken just two short vacations totaling about eight days -- far less than she is allowed.

Workaholic Americans are notoriously lousy at using all their vacation time. According to a 2006 survey by travel Web site, American workers last year on average received 14 vacation days but didn't use four of them, one more day than the year before.

Scheduling a vacation can generate particular angst for younger workers. Eager to make a good impression on co-workers and bosses, many young people fret about using all their vacation time. They haven't figured out what's acceptable and don't want to push the envelope. Sometimes, they fear their absence will create more work for others or slow important projects. Other times, hard-driving managers set bad examples, and young employees feel too intimidated to take what little time they're due.

"I've heard managers say things like, 'I haven't taken a vacation day in six years,' " says Brad Karsh, president of JobBound, a Chicago career-counseling firm. "Newer employees think, 'Yikes, maybe I shouldn't take mine.' " The result, he says: "The people with the fewest days are feeling pressure not to take the scant two weeks that they have."

Career counselors warn that workers are prone to burnout if they don't re-energize with an occasional break. Indeed, young people who feel so pressured they can't take vacation may need to reconsider whether they are working for the right employer, says Peg Hendershot, director of Career Vision, a Glen Ellyn, Ill., career-counseling group. Industries where such attitudes are particularly prevalent include investment banking and management consulting, she says.

Coaches recommend a variety of ways young people can lessen their angst about taking vacation. Mr. Karsh suggests helping supervisors plan how others could cover their duties, and trying to do as much work as possible in advance. If there's a special reason for the vacation, such as grandma's 90th birthday or mom and dad's wedding anniversary, employees shouldn't feel shy about volunteering it, he says. He also suggests waiting about six months before requesting a full week off so that employees can feel confident they have earned their break.

Ms. Garrigan says her vacation guilt is self-imposed. In June 2005, about a year after graduating from Drury University in Missouri, she started working at the museum in visitor services, taking on duties that included manning the information desk. This past November, she was promoted to her current job as the assistant coordinator for visitor services, handling group bookings and gallery tours, among other things. In the 17 months before the promotion, she took only four vacation days in March 2006 to visit her mom in Missouri.

Now that she has more responsibility, she's even more hesitant to take vacation. She's allowed 27 days of paid time off a year, including sick days, vacation and personal days. But she has no assistant, so if a group calls to arrange a tour while she's away, the museum might miss a chance at a booking -- and revenue. "The pressure is something I put on myself," she says. "I need to relax more, I know. But it's hard to make myself do that."

To arrange a break in December, she employed several strategies. She chose time near Christmas, because work then is slow. She asked her supervisor for only about four days, rather than a bigger chunk of time, and got as much work done in advance as she could. She put her boss's name as a contact on her voice mail message. And she asked her supervisor to check her email accounts -- she has one for herself and one for group sales -- so that someone else could handle any last minute problems.

Overall, the Christmas break went smoothly, she says. Her boss was completely supportive, though Ms. Garrigan felt guilty about imposing on her. There were also no major crises while she was out.

Ms. Garrigan still hasn't planned any other trips, but she anticipates taking a few days off again this December. "You just have to do as much in advance as possible," she says.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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