(CNN) -- Cindy Goodman was having dinner with a group of girlfriends one night when the conversation took a surprising turn.
Summer at the beach may seem like fun, but more Americans are afraid to take time off.
Goodman asked her friends where they planned to go this year for their summer vacation. Nowhere, they answered. They were afraid to take time off because they didn't want to risk losing their jobs, she says.
"It's going to be an interesting summer," says Goodman, a Miami Herald business columnist. "The people who still have a job are really feeling overwhelmed and overworked. They're afraid to take vacations, but at the same time, they need them more than ever."
The bad economy isn't just depleting bank accounts. It's cutting into people's vacation time. Americans typically take time off and kick back during the summer. This year may be different.
People are worried that a temporary vacation could lead to permanent time off, Goodman says.
"I don't think anyone is going to be fired for taking two weeks off, but they might think that they'll think of another way of doing my job without me," says Goodman, who wrote about people's vacation fears for her blog at http://worklifebalancingact.blogspot.com.
How to take time off without guilt
Americans had a difficult time taking vacations even before the economy slumped. Numerous articles and studies draw the same conclusions: Americans don't know how to pry themselves away from the workplace.
This year, Expedia.com, the travel reservation company, conducted a survey that compared Americans' vacation habits with their counterparts in other countries.
The survey said about 34 percent of Americans don't take all the vacation time they earn each year. In contrast, 22 percent of French citizens and 24 percent of Germans don't take all the vacation allotted to them.
Japanese workers are the least interested in using all of their vacation days, according to the Expedia survey. About 92 percent of Japanese workers do not take all of their vacation days.
Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of "The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World," says even when Americans manage to take vacations, they still don't completely leave their office, because of technology.
"You can take a BlackBerry on vacation and still have a conversation with clients anywhere else in the world," Hohlbaum says. "It's wonderful for innovation, but not so great for leisure."
But workers who don't take vacation hurt themselves and their companies, Hohlbaum says. Overworked employees get sick more often and place themselves at risk for long-term illnesses such as heart disease. Companies suffer because their employees are too tired or ill to be productive, she said.
Workplaces are full of exhausted employees who have already checked out in their cubicles, Hohlbaum says.
"If people are overworked, they're surfing the Internet," she says. "They're not contributing to the bottom line."
Hohlbaum says she talked to a computer technician who found a way to take more time off but be more productive. He started a walking group for his colleagues during lunch hour.
He and his colleagues were transformed.
"It was an amazing experience," Hohlbaum says. "They bonded. It helped people relax and when they got back to work, they were much more productive."
She suggests that other workers follow his example. Explain the upside of the idea to the boss: The company benefits from well-rested workers because they're more productive. Set performance goals with your boss to prove taking time off will allow you to thrive and will result in greater productivity, she says.
Some workers, however, find that their biggest skeptic may be internal; they don't know how to take it easy anymore, Hohlbaum says.
"If you're so used to being purposeful, make leisure time your purpose," Hohlbaum says.
Goodman, the Miami Herald columnist, offers some of her own tips for taking time off. If you're too afraid to ask for an extended vacation, plan four-day weekends or time off around holidays.
Goodman says she's going to take a four-day vacation around the Fourth of July. But there was a time when she traditionally took two-week vacations during the summer.
"I have the same kind of fear that everyone else has, '' Goodman says. "I want to take time off, but I don't want to miss too much work time. I want to keep my column in the paper every week."
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