Beach Therapy

David Crane was thinking about leaving the ad industry altogether. The management supervisor at Peter A. Mayer Advertising in New Orleans was “totally fried” after losing a 14-year client, but he wasn’t sure if the career itself was eating at him or just the soured account. To sort it out, he and his wife headed to Seagrove Beach on Florida’s Northwest panhandle, a spot he’s gone to relax for more than 40 years.

“I was completely confused and said, ‘I can’t make this decision while I’m in the office,’ ” Crane recalls of that low point three years ago. Once he was more relaxed, he thought about the pros and cons of advertising, and eventually realized, “Wait a minute, I love this business!” Crane went back to work with a new attitude.

While nose-to-the-grindstone executives are often reluctant to take time off—Americans hand back 415 million vacation days to their employers, according to a May survey by—vacations can only help job performance. Getting a break is good for your mental and physical health. (Psychosomatic Medicine published a study in 2000 that found middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease were less likely to die over a nine-year period if they took frequent annual vacations.) With seven weeks left to go until Labor Day, maybe it’s time to book a trip.

Keep in mind that even if you use all your vacation days, odds are you’re still working a lot more than your counterparts in Europe. While Americans average 10 days of vacation a year, according to human resources consulting firm Hewitt Associates, workers in Finland get three times that amount, Swedes enjoy 25 days off and Germans 24 days.

At McClain Finlon in Denver, you will use all your three-plus weeks of vacation time—at least, if you listen to your superiors. Those who haven’t taken off in the past quarter or two are summoned by a department head or director of human resources Heidi Stevenson, who will “heavily encourage” them to check out for a bit, she says. The shop will also help staffers find ways to take the time—if a lengthy absence isn’t realistic, a series of long weekends might work out.

Keeping employees fresh, notes Stevenson, makes good business sense. “If people are renewed, then the numbers are going to be where they need to be, because the work is going to be where it needs to be,” she says.

It’s easier for lower-level staffers to feel comfortable taking vacations if their bosses do, says Mary Graham, a senior policy adviser for the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va., who counsels businesses on mental-health issues. If managers don’t take off, she says, “it sets a bad tone for the organization.”

If your boss is working nonstop, after all, taking a break might seem like the equivalent of wearing a neon sign that reads, “Not a team player.” Says Graham: “I think people feel guilty about taking leave nowadays.”

Tina Chadwick has been there. “You self-assess an importance that is fictitious,” says the senior writer at WestWayne in Atlanta, who has canceled a vacation (deciding that leaving during a busy period would look bad), attended a shoot in the midst of time off and let vacation days expire during an end-of-the-year pitch. “Things can happen without you. I could have had someone FedEx me the pitch book, but you sit there by the copier like an idiot.”

Maybe it helps to remember that traveling can be inspiring. Chadwick recalls a beach resort that put its name and a smiley face on the bottom of flip-flops it gave guests. Everywhere she looked, there was the resort’s name imprinted on the sand. “You can’t help but think that’s a great idea, and I can go and incorporate it,” she says. The concept has pushed her to think of other nontraditional ways to send a message.

Mayer’s Crane takes full advantage of his four weeks’ vacation and encourages his team of nine to do the same. “Never feel guilty about vacations, because you deserve it,” he urges his crew. “It’s an asset that you receive when you work here, part of your reward, and don’t ever feel bad about it, even if it’s a bad time, because there’s never a good time.”