Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Grinvalds/Thinkstock.
How do you relax on vacation when you can't even tolerate an elevator ride without checking your email?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Grinvalds/Thinkstock.

"It's my job to tell people to take a vacation," said Katie Denis. She was addressing a modest crowd at the National Geographic Museum last Wednesday for a conference organized by Project: Time Off, an organization that, in a sane world, wouldn't have to exist. "As it turns out, people actually like vacation," said Denis, citing extremely unsurprising survey data. But here's the paradox: "They don't take it."

L.V. AndersonL.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate associate editor. 

You might think of this as a problem for workers, not managers. If people decide to work instead of taking the time off they're entitled to, no boss is going to complain, right? Project: Time Off is trying to convince bosses that they should complain—and even give their employees incentives to unplug for a few weeks a year.

According to Project: Time Off, Americans leave 658 million vacation days on the table each year. In 2015, Americans took an average of 16.2 days of vacation each year, compared to the 20.3 days we used to take off before the year 2000.

Project: Time Off's business case for vacation goes something like this: Employees who take vacations are happier, which makes them more productive (thereby improving profits) and less likely to burn out (thereby reducing turnover). Vacation also allegedly makes people more creative when they get back to work, and it gives companies an edge in recruiting. "Vacation has power. It is a tool," said Denis. "Let it be your competitive advantage."

The business case for vacation is so strong that a number of companies have instituted incentives to get their employees to take more vacation. At the financial-services company The Motley Fool, employees are entered into monthly drawings to win two weeks off—which they must take within the next month. The U.S. Travel Association increased the percentage of staff who max out their vacation days from 19 percent to 91 percent by offering $500 to anyone who took all the time off they were entitled to. Employees of the contact management platform Full Contact get a $7,500 bonus if they go on vacation and actually disconnect; they lose the money if they get caught working from their vacations.

I attended the Upside of Downtime Forum eager to see what a business conference about vacation, of all possible business topics, would look like. Would there be beach balls? Live reggae music? Mojitos? Alas, there would not. (Although I did get a tote bag with an illustration of a life preserver and the words "chief vacation officer" on it.) For a conference that was ostensibly about how important it is to take breaks from work, I was struck by how many of the speakers copped to—or subtly bragged about—the workaholic attitude that allegedly makes American workers miserable and burned out. Denis, for instance, admitted that she checks her work email while she's on vacation to avoid coming back to an avalanche of unread messages. "I personally am not an unplugger. I feel like I shouldn't say that out loud or on record. I like 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, even if it's just deleting the stuff I don't want to deal with," she said. David Dye, managing director of human capital at consulting giant Deloitte, told us he was checking his work email from vacation when he accepted Project Time Off's invitation to speak at the conference.

"Just a week ago, I was in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, for a travel market conference, a trade show, and I was super excited to get away," said George Stone, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler. "And I had the same challenge that I think some of you have had: I opened up my suitcase, and there was not a swimsuit in it, there were no flip-flops, there was no sunblock. There was nothing at all to indicate that I was involved in own life, only that I was involved in my work."

Consultant Juliet Funt offered baby steps for workaholics: delegating work to staff when you're away from the office for short periods of time, allowing your staff to contact you if they need to while you're away. When Funt is on vacation, she says, she doesn't actively download emails, "But I do allow push communication, so if someone needs to text me or if someone needs to call me, I will allow that inbound road to be opened, and that does make me feel more secure."

You need to be able to take small breaks from work before you'll be able to take long breaks from work, Funt said. "Before you can go to the Bahamas for a week, don't you first need to learn how to tolerate an entire elevator ride without checking your email?" she asked. Funt's consulting firm teaches corporate clients how to incorporate "white space"—a less new-agey way to say mindfulness—into their busy workdays. She suggested taking 10 seconds of "white space" after you turn off your ignition in the company parking lot, or whenever you get an email that throws you off your game. I don't doubt that stopping, breathing, and focusing on the present moment is helpful, even rejuvenating, in the middle of the workday. But if a 10-second pause counts as a break, aren't we redefining break in the wrong direction? After all, if finding small pockets of "white space" throughout our workdays raises our productivity and prevents burnout, what incentive do our bosses have to let us take vacations?

Funt says that the most meaningful part of her work is helping people be more present with their families. "Sadly, we don't yet live in a world where the recuperative pause is going to be reason enough. We have to link it to business, and the good news is, it's very easy to do so," she says. "You better go back and find a metric or a number that you can tie that to." Your boss is happy to let you take vacation—and might even give you an incentive to take vacation—as long as there's evidence that it raises your productivity. Would he still let you do it if it didn't? Well, that depends.

Project Time Off isn't promoting vacation out of the goodness of its heart, either. The group is a spinoff of the U.S. Travel Association, and it's funded primarily by the travel industry. Its sponsors include Marriott, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Alamo rental cars, and a number of state and municipal tourism boards: organizations with a vested interest in getting Americans to take all their vacation days. Vacation doesn't just turn Americans into better workers—it turns them into better consumers, too.