What do Americans fear most? Among the common threats to our peace of mind—unemployment, clowns, public speaking, and so on—a new bogeyman is looming large: Vacation time. In 2015, the number of unused vacation days in the US peaked at an alarming 40-year high. According to research conducted by the Oxford Economics department, Americans sacrificed a total of 169 million vacation days (roughly 52.4 billion dollars’ worth of paid leave).
Why are Americans so scared to take the “down time” they’re perfectly entitled to? In the years since the Great Recession, sociologists suggest, the nation’s existing workaholic culture has intensified dramatically. Facing a climate of immense job insecurity, many Americans are worried that if they take vacation time, they’ll look less dedicated and less driven than their peers. Most people delay taking a much-deserved rest owing to these feelings of worry and guilt until their vacation time is reset and (unless they are lucky enough to work for a company that “rolls over” unused vacation days) they lose those days forever. More worrying still, many companies are capitalizing on this trend and ceasing to offer paid vacation days at all.
There’s just one catch to this perfect productivity plan: Human beings aren’t robots. The more we deny ourselves the opportunity to rest and take a bit of time for ourselves, the less happy and (ironically) the more unproductive we become. As Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains, “There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources. When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You’re able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks.”
That’s right: The best thing you can do for yourself and your job is to take a few days off here and there. But, in this rest-averse, work-obsessed culture, how do we manage to make that time? The answer may surprise you: Try faking sick.
Though it sounds unconventional, the trend of taking “mental health days” is beginning to gain real traction as more and more professionals—who may not have access to vacation time—teeter on the edge of burnout. If you think about it, it makes sense: In a culture where we feel we need “permission” to take time off, sick days are the ideal solution. When you take a day off sick, you’re not saying, “I don’t want to come to work for two weeks—I’d rather go to Hawaii,” you’re in effect saying, “I’d love to come to work today, but I just can’t.”
Likewise, taking “sick days” is more socially acceptable than the idea of taking a vacation: No one wants a sick person to come in to the office and pass around their germs, lest (God forbid) more people have to take sick leave. In most workplaces, when someone is ill, they’re actively encouraged to stay home for a few days.
Sick days are also ideal for those who are not able or willing to go on a long vacation as they require only a short commitment. Even if you can’t justify lying on a beach somewhere for two weeks while your team is struggling to complete a project on time, you can probably assure yourself that they can survive without you for a day or two. Meanwhile, research suggests that you’ll be restoring your focus, strengthening your relationships, improving your sleep quality, and boosting your mood. It is, in short, worth it.
Before you take your “mental health break,” for the sake of your own peace of mind, decide who you will delegate your usual tasks to and cover all of your bases. Learn how to effectively “fake sick” without getting caught and prepare yourself with a fake doctor’s note (yes, you can buy them online) just in case your workplace demands proof of your ailment. Once you have all of the details taken care of, you’ll be able to kick back, put your feet up, have a “pyjama day,” and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed, revitalized, and ready to take on the world. Go on—you’ve earned it.