America a no-vacation nation

This spring, during a weeklong vacation in Florida, Caren West wasn't just wired, she was literally wired...or wireless. The local public relations whiz spent most of her time in a beach house with laptop open, smartphone ringing and brain firing as she dealt with clients. On the one day she planned a boat trip, she asked for a moment of peace — which she got, until she returned to land and her mobile phone blew up.

"It is to the point where it almost doesn't make sense to go on vacation, because not only are you working, but you come back to twice as much work," said West, co-owner of Caren West Public Relations. "I always feel guilty about not working."

West isn't alone. More than half of American workers ended 2011 with an average of 11 days unused vacation time, according to a recent survey by Harris Interactive for JetBlue. Financial constraints, fear of losing a job and just having too much work to do, are among the reasons workers give for not taking earned time-off.

If they do go on vacation, many workers find it hard to disconnect, keeping their smartphones, computers and other gadgets at the ready. Managers seem to do better at taking time off. According to one survey from CareerBuilder.com, 81 percent of managers took or plan to take vacation this year, compared with 65 percent of full-time employees.

While no one disputes the value of a vacation — research supports the need to avoid burnout and reduce stress — finding the time and the money for a getaway, can be a challenge.

West, a self-confessed workaholic, takes about 10 vacation days per year, but not without extensive preparation.

"Determining when I can take a vacation is tough because we are in a field that changes daily," she said. "We try to prepare clients by letting them know we have a team of two and four interns."

Her safety, however, is planning vacations where she knows there is wireless access just in case she needs to put in some office time.

Janet Walsh, president and CEO of Birchtree Global, LLC, said the working vacation has become the norm, particularly as the workforce becomes more global.

"I am seeing a huge trend in people taking their work with them on vacation," she said. "The boss isn't going to know if you are sitting on a beach in Cancun emailing a customer in Portugal, and the customer isn't going to care, either."

Walsh, who recently moved her business, which provides human resources, tax, legal and financial solutions to companies expanding globally, from Atlanta to Bedford Hills, N.Y., found herself working with a client in India on the Fourth of July.

"They understand it is a holiday, but they are sitting in their offices waiting for us to respond. If we don't, someone else will," she said.

A leaner workforce and poor staffing also create a challenge for employees looking to take vacation especially at companies with fewer than 200 employees, which includes 80 percent of total U.S. businesses, Walsh said.

On a personal level, many employees simply don't have vacation plans.

"The stay-cation is the new reality," Walsh said.

Other employees may not take vacation because they fear losing their jobs, and some companies promote that thought-process, Walsh added.

But for organizations that want to encourage employees to take a break, the remedy is simple: institute a use-it-or-lose-it policy.

Several years ago, Smyrna-based United Acceptance, Inc., a financial organization with more than 140 employees, shifted from a policy that allowed employees to carry over unused vacation time to one in which only 40 hours are allowed to roll from year-to-year, said human resources manager, Katrina Jackson.

Last year, only a handful of employees lost vacation hours, and about 65 percent rolled over the 40-hour maximum, Jackson said. "Most employees are good about taking their time off," she said. "The management staff makes sure people are taking their paid time off, including themselves."

Another solution said Walsh is to just allow people to take whatever time off they need. "If people resign or leave, you don't have to pay unused vacation," she said. The sticky part is figuring out how to manage people who may abuse such a free-flowing system.

West said she prefers a flexible vacation policy. When a team member goes on vacation, she tries to have as much respect as possible for his or her time off.

"I want people to like working for CWPR. I don't want them to follow the mistakes I make," said West, who now realizes the need to step away in order to fuel creativity. "I'm not going to deny someone the opportunity to go away and experience a great trip."