America is at a critical crossroads: either change our behavior and remove barriers to taking time off or continue down the unsustainable path that has led to a stockpile of 662 million unused days and countless unintended consequences.
The State of Vacation in America
The storied American work ethic suggests that taking a pass on time off is a matter of tradition—but that isn’t the case. For decades, Americans took advantage of the time off they had earned but, unfortunately, times have changed.
For decades, Americans took an average of 20.3 days of vacation, but in 2000, usage fell below the long-term average and has yet to recover. The latest data shows the trendline moving in a positive direction, back up to 16.8 days used in 2016, after losing almost a week of vacation time.
There’s reason to believe change is possible, but there is a long way to go. We fail to use 662 million vacation days annually. The stockpile of unused vacation is creating a spike in worker burnout and even larger balance sheet liabilities that directly affect a company’s bottom line. What’s worse—employees forfeited 206 million vacation days in 2016. These days could not be rolled over, could not be paid out, were not banked, or used for any other benefit—they were purely lost. These days add up to $66.4 billion in forfeited benefits across the workforce or $604 per worker.
The work martyr syndrome combined with a culture of silence in the workplace is keeping workers at their desks instead of using their time off. The top barriers for employees include:
- Return to a mountain of work, 43%
- No one else can do the job, 34%
- Taking time off is harder with seniority, 33%
- I cannot financially afford a vacation, 32%
- Want to show complete dedication, 26%
Unfortunately, our work martyr complex is reinforced by company culture, chiefly poor communication around time off. Even though senior business leaders overwhelmingly recognize the importance of using time off, nearly two-thirds (66%) of employees say their company says nothing, sends mixed messages about, or discourages using their time off—virtually unchanged since 2014. This culture of silence has created a vacuum where negative perceptions thrive.
The Benefits Taking Time Off Can Deliver
An overwhelming majority of American workers believe that time off helps them relax and recharge, and offers the opportunity to do what they enjoy. Nearly two-thirds of employees say their concentration and productivity at work improve with taking time off. This sentiment is echoed by senior business leaders, 91 percent of whom believe employees return from vacation recharged and renewed—and ready to work more effectively.
Unused vacation days cost the U.S. economy $236 billion in 2016, due to lost spending. That spending would have supported 1.8 million American jobs and generated $70 billion in additional income for American workers. If the 54 percent of workers who left time unused in 2016 took just one more day off, it would drive $33 billion in economic impact.
The good news: the jump in vacation usage from 16.2 to 16.8 days delivered a $37 billion impact to the U.S. economy.
Real workplace change depends on managers. To workers, the boss is the most powerful influencer when it comes to taking time off, even slightly more influential than the employee’s family (24% put the boss as number one, 23% said family). In fact, 76 percent of employees said if they felt fully supported and encouraged by their boss, they would be likely to take more time off.
Ensuring the entire organization understands the corporate value placed on using paid time off is paramount to driving employees to act. Communications efforts will look different for every organization, but consistent and regular communications are essential.
In order to get Americans to use their paid leave, the single-most important individual step is to plan. Employees who plan the use of their time off are significantly more likely to use all of their time off compared to non-planners. Even better, they are positioned for a longer break, with planners much more likely to take a full week of vacation time or more at a time. Planning out time off is also associated with increased happiness. Americans who plan are happier, in some cases by double digits, with their company and job, relationships, physical health and well-being, financial situation, and more.
Join us in disrupting the vacation stigma. Learn about why vacation is important, communicate about it with coworkers and company management, and lead by example by taking advantage of your time off.