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No-vacation nation: why Americans aren't taking vacations

Almost half of the American workers don't take all the vacation days they can, leading to increased health risks.


It wasn’t long ago that many Americans took vacations and looked forward to them. Summer sojourns were very common -- road trips, in particular. Swarms of families would take long driving excursions to the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. These vacations frequently included several destinations and lasted at least a week, sometimes two.

For whatever reasons, perhaps more economic than anything else, fewer American workers are taking their vacation time. The 2008 Great Recession was nearly a depression and its after-effects lasted for years when the official economic downturn ended. The recession around the year 2001 wasn’t nearly as severe, but having two economic declines in a row didn’t help us Americans feel comfortable in taking time off.

In fact, there has been some research conducted demonstrating that too many American workers are not taking off the time they need to relax and rejuvenate. A survey conducted by Kimble of 1,200 full-time employees who work for companies offering paid vacation time generated some concerning insights. One was that about 47% had not used their full vacation time last year. Slightly over 20% had more than five days of vacation banked. Some of the reasons for these behaviors identified by the survey were:

-Having too much work to complete to take time off (27%)

 -Feeling pressured by an employer or manager not to take time off (19%)

-Fearing there will be too much work after returning (13%)

Actress Nadja Tiller at the wheel of a car with her daughter Natascha, as her husband Walter Giller looks on, during their vacation at the Lido in Venice, August 23rd 1962. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even for the ones who said they did take some vacation time, there were some significant issues. Almost half said they check in on work while on vacation -- almost 20% said they do this every day. Nearly 30% said they do so periodically. In a sense, these choices defeat the purpose of going on vacation.

Some of the beliefs the surveyed employees had which contributed to such vacation-related attitudes and behaviors were:

-Believing that not taking time off would be good for their careers (14%)

-Believing that giving up vacation time for a year would be right to get a promotion (19%)

Some of the more unfortunate insights were that about 7% were nervous their vacation requests would not be approved and 29% were expected to be on call for emergencies. Employers themselves can inadvertently contribute to employee expectations and fears about vacation time by the kind of company cultures they have. Broadly speaking, company culture is a combination of values, communication styles, management styles, discourse, organizational structure, roles, objectives, strategy, goals and products or services.

Kimble co-founder Mark Robinson provided some tips about how to have an intentional company culture to encourage vacation time to be taken --

“It is a very simple thing but reminding employees to set up an email auto-reply which tells people the dates of their vacation and offers another contact for urgent queries makes a big difference," said Robinson. "It sets expectations and reduces the amount of email that is likely to be waiting for them when they return.

It may be an idea to set different protocols for different methods of communication – for instance, texting people who are on vacation about work issues should be avoided. It may be OK to send some emails – as long as it is understood there may not be a reply for a few days.”

The results of a single survey perhaps are not all that meaningful in identifying a larger trend for tens of millions of American workers. However, a prior study of 7,000 America workers called Project: Time Off's 2017 State of American Vacation report found that 43% said they didn’t take time off because they were afraid of how much work they would return to when it was over -- the same fear identified by the Kimble survey, though in this case far more reported it. Also mentioned in the report from this larger survey, was the fact about 32% said they could not afford a vacation.

A white sand beach decorated by red umbrellas at the Anantara Rasananda resort June 18, 2012 on the island of Koh Phangan off the coast of Koh Samui. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Health Implications

While taking vacations may seem trivial or unnecessary, not taking time off from work could be hazardous to one’s health. A research study published in Psychosomatic Medicine concluded
“The frequency of annual vacations by middle-aged men at high risk for CHD is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality and, more specifically, mortality attributed to CHD. Vacationing may be good for your health.”

In other words, middle-aged men with a high risk for coronary heart disease in the study had a lower risk of mortality if they took annual vacations.

"Vacations are important because they not only replenish the mind, they also reduce the physical effects of stress on the body. The most important thing is that it becomes regular and you don't start skipping. The major negative effects have been shown for people who don't take a vacation for several years,” said University of Michigan School of Nursing professor Kathleen Potempa.

Facebook Vacations Too?

Because of the ubiquitousness of smart phones, ipads, laptops and free wi-fi we may be more digitally tethered than ever. Checking our phones, texting, and sharing on social media can consume a lot of time and attention. Digital screen time has become so common that concerns about its healthiness have been raised.

The research focused on social media has been conducted and these concerns have been validated. A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology came up with the term ‘Facebook vacations’ to describe the deliberate non-use of the social media network, “Our results suggest that the typical Facebook user may occasionally find the large amount of social information available to be taxing, and Facebook vacations could ameliorate this stress-at least in the short term.”

It appears that vacations today are not just getting away from work. It may also be helpful to completely unplug from all electronic devices, including the Internet, to reap the benefits of getting away from it all.

Alternative medicine physician and author Andrew Weil goes even further with his idea of periodic news fasts, “A number of studies have shown that images and reports of violence, death, and disaster can promote undesirable changes in mood and aggravate anxiety, sadness, and depression, which in turn can have deleterious effects on physical health.”

So, while we are on vacation it will probably be helpful to some of us to stay away from the disturbing news, or any news for a brief period if we want the full health benefits of getting away from it all.

Of course, it also matters what we choose to do on vacation because being away from work sometimes results in getting injured, sick or engaging in unhealthy behaviors. If we go on vacation when we are very stressed there may be a temptation to overeat and over-consume alcoholic beverages to compensate. We might also let go of our healthier routines and suffer the consequences.

One research study found that going on vacation could result in unhealthy weight gain, concluding that “vacations resulted in significant weight gain (0.32kg), and this weight gain persisted at the 6-week follow-up period. The weight gain appeared to be driven by increased energy intake above energy requirements. This gain could be a significant contributor to yearly weight gain in adults and therefore affect obesity prevalence.”

To sum up, vacations today are not what they were even thirty years ago. We not only need to get away from the workplace, it is important to have the intention to relax, rest and sleep because doing so is essential for our health. Everyone can afford to take some time off each year, and it isn’t necessary to travel to exotic destinations. Additionally, we may benefit from taking ‘media vacations’ -- deliberately reducing our screen time or eliminating it for a while.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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