The Work Martyr’s Affair: How America’s Lost Week Quietly Threatens Our Relationships

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July 15, 2015

A curious thing has happened in America. In less than 15 years, U.S. workers have lost a week of vacation time. For decades, Americans used more than 20 vacation days. But as Project: Time Off’s All Work No Pay study revealed, today, they have hit an all-time low, taking just 16 days off each year.

America’s Lost Week takes a toll in myriad ways, some obvious—work stress, burnout—and some less so. Work martyr syndrome is quietly creeping into employees’ home lives, creating a major divide between the people American workers want to be and the people they are.

Project: Time Off’s study, “The Work Martyr’s Affair: How America’s Lost Week Quietly Threatens Our Relationships,” examines the balance in workers’ professional and personal lives, and suggests a solution for stronger relationships—one which may be sitting ignored in employee handbooks.

The report also warns that America’s Lost Week is harming relationships with the people who matter most and, what’s worse, the damage may be done before it’s realized.


GfK Public Affairs conducted a survey of 1,214 adults living in U.S. households where someone receives paid time off using GfK’s KnowledgePanel®, a large-scale online panel based on a representative random sample of the U.S. population. The survey was conducted April 7-16, 2015.

To further explore the issue, GfK conducted interviews with noted family and couples experts, including:

Dr. Lotte Bailyn: Bailyn is a published author and professor emerita at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bailyn holds a B.A. in mathematics from Swarthmore College as well as an M.A. and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard/Radcliffe. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.

Dr. Gilda Carle: Carle is a professor emerita at New York’s Mercy College. A licensed educator, Carle holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership from New York University, with a concentration in psychology, sociology, and social psychology. She is also the president of Country Cures, a non-profit organization that trains returning veterans and their families to heal their relationships.

Michael Gurian: Gurian is a marriage and family counselor in private practice, New York Times bestselling author of Lessons of Lifelong Intimacy and the co-founder of The Gurian Institute, a research and training organization that helps children thrive in school and in life. Gurian has served on the faculty of Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University and Ankara University.

“The fear that is permeating the American workers who I have seen is pretty overwhelming. But they don’t have the same fear of losing their spouse or their loved one. Isn’t that interesting?”
– Dr. Gilda Carle



  • Respondents assert that people who fail to use time off are losing out on quality time with their significant other (85%), their children (85%), and themselves (81%). Still four in ten workers leave time off on the table—a consistent statistic across Project: Time Off’s previous research.
  • Nearly all employees (96%) report that their families understand when work infringes on family time. Yet more than one in three (36%) couples argue about the time needed for work versus the amount of quality time needed for each other. In 36 percent of cases, conflict between couples lasts a day or more and can become an ongoing issue.

“There is an obvious disconnect with what people say they want from life and what they actually do. You see a conflicting identity. You’re supposed to be the good family person, but also this ideal worker.”
– Dr. Lotte Bailyn

  • The average person misses more than three (3.3) events a year. The number one missed event is a child’s activity (35%). But employees are also missing out on vacations (25%), visiting family (20%), and even funerals (10%).
  • The majority (43%) of American workers are dedicating less than 20 hours a week to quality family time. Just 19 percent are spending more than 40 hours a week with family.

“To support that professional drive, you have to find ways to decrease stress. Time off decreases your own personal stress and it will decrease the stress on your family.”
– Michael Gurian

  • The 54 percent of households that set aside time to plan out the use of paid time off for the year are happier in almost every category measured in the survey.
  • Nearly half of workers (47%) say that they bring work stress home and a third (32%) admit to bringing home stress to work.
  • The data suggests time off is an easy solution to avoid missing events. Two-thirds of respondents said they never missed an event when time off was used. Further, an overwhelming majority (85%) of workers believe they have the ability to take one more day of vacation time.