Call it the Lost Week. For decades, Americans took an average of 20 vacation days each year. They piled into the family wagon or hopped on a plane or train to get away from it all. It wasn't always as relaxing as expected, but most everyone returned home happier and ready for the next challenge. Exactly the point of a vacation.

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Then, beginning in 2000, the number of vacation days American workers took each year began ticking down. And down. And down. By 2015, Americans were using an average of 16 vacation days a year — nearly a full workweek less than the long-term average.

The kicker is that this Lost Week wasn't stolen from American workers; most still earned it from their employers. They just walked away from it, opting instead to essentially work for free for their employers one week a year.

Economic conditions don't explain the Lost Week. Researchers at the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) have found no correlation between unemployment rates and vacationing habits. Nor is there any indication that people take more vacation when consumer confidence is up.

Where researchers do find connections, though, is with the spread of technology. As the internet and smartphone technology took off, people started taking less time off. Even when workers did hit the open road, technology tethered them to the office like never before. A recent AARP Travel survey of boomers found that a third of them did some work while on vacation, with 4 out of 10 saying it was "somewhat" to "extremely" important to do so.

Workers offer up plenty of reasons why they're checking email beside a hotel pool or avoiding vacation altogether. The USTA survey found that workers were leery of returning to mountains of work. Some also feared that their supervisors might look askance at their taking time off.

"We are living in a world where the time demands [on] workers have risen exponentially," says Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work & Family.

"As jobs become more insecure, the need, desire or pressure to prove oneself through time at work increases."

Research shows there are very real ramifications — physical and mental — to vacation phobia. One of several studies of vacation habits and heart disease, for instance, found that men who skipped their vacations for five years running were 30 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who took at least a week off each year. Women who stepped away from work less than once every six years were almost eight times as likely to have heart problems.

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Having a healthy holiday life carries big benefits, among them, stress reduction, according to the American Psychological Association. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that engaging in regular leisure activities like vacations led to lower blood pressure, thinner waistlines and an overall feeling of improved health among the nearly 1,400 subjects.

Other studies point to the improvements in people's relationships that regular holidays can bring. One, from Wisconsin, found that women who take at least two vacations a year were less likely to become tense or depressed and were more satisfied with their marriages.

See also: How to plan and take your vacation

Overcoming vacation phobia is not as difficult as it may seem, says Cait DeBaun, director of the USTA's Project: Time Off.

  • Planning is the first, and most important, step. Take a day early in the year to map out your R & R for the entire year, DeBaun suggests — and don't worry if you don't yet know what to do with the time away. Americans who plan in advance are more likely to use all of their vacation time, she says.
  • Make a bucket list. Next time you're thumbing through a National Geographic at the dentist's office and stumble across an amazing view or attraction, take a moment to tap out a quick note about it on your smartphone. Keeping a running list will give you a wealth of great vacation ideas to explore when you sit down for your next vacation planning session.
  • Squeeze in extra downtime one day at a time. Try tacking a day or two on to a business trip or taking a midweek break in your own town or city to, say, visit a museum or theme park.

DeBaun and others say it's time to ditch our work-martyr mentality and take a more holistic view of holidays, which are good across the board — for companies, for the economy, for families and for workers themselves.

Seize the week. You won't regret it.

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