In a country where being work-obsessed is regarded as a positive thing, vacation time can be tricky to come by. It's therefore encouraging to hear that Americans, on average, took 17.2 days off in 2017, the most since 2010. That's the latest from Project: Time Off, which had some sour news to report along with that statistic -- 52% of U.S. employees wound up leaving vacation time on the table last year.

No matter how many vacation days your company offers, it's important to make an effort to use them all. Otherwise, your work and well-being might suffer, and your company just might start to rethink that benefit.

You need a break

Whether you work 40 hours a week on average or substantially more, chances are, you frequently feel drained and worn out. That's just a natural byproduct of spending the bulk of our waking hours at the office (home or otherwise). But if you don't give yourself a break from that ongoing grind, you're more likely than not to fall victim to burnout.

Man sitting facing the water at sunset

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Though you might think it to be nothing more than a trendy buzzword, burnout is actually a real condition. Mayo Clinic defines it as "a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work." And if you don't take steps to prevent it, your health is apt to suffer along with your work.

Enter the vacation. Even if you do nothing more than bum around your apartment for several days on end, taking time away from the office can help you recharge mentally and physically. And once you take that time away, you'll be in a better position to tackle your job-related challenges without getting overly frustrated or stressed.

But here's another reason it's so critical to take vacation time: If you don't, your company might start to rethink its policy and start reducing that benefit. Imagine your employer offers 20 days of vacation, but the average person in your company takes just 17. Why would your company continue to offer the full 20 when it can clearly get away with less?

Making vacation time possible

Of course, the challenge in taking vacation is that whole workload extravaganza, and the fact that if you take time away, you might suffer for it after the fact in the form of having to play catch-up. But if you plan accordingly, you can pull off your vacation without coming back to a mountain of work.

For one thing, plan your vacation during periods when things aren't so intense work-wise. This means no taking off during tax season as an accountant, for example. Next, talk to your colleagues and enlist their help in covering for you while you're away. Naturally, you'll need to be willing to return the favor when they take vacation, but this way, you'll get the break you need without having to spend your days off worrying about the work that's piling up by the minute.

Finally, set expectations with your coworkers and managers well before you head out of the office. Review upcoming deadlines and let people know when they can expect you to be fully caught up. And remember, automatic out-of-office replies are your friend on the email front, so if you want a true break from work, set yours up before you go and deal with your inbox when you get back.

In a more ideal working world, vacation time would be easier to maximize. But with a little forethought, you can succeed in taking all of the days off you're entitled to. And who knows? You may come to find that your performance improves as a result.

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