Paid Time Off: Why Most Americans Don't Take All Their Vacation Days

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Paid time off at beach

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June 23, 2024 at 11:25AM UTC

Did you know that over 55% of Americans did not use all their vacation time last year? According to Project: Time Off, that’s 658 million vacation days left unused. And 222 million days of those vacation days will not roll over to the next year, be paid out or be saved in any other way, which means almost one third of those vacation days are truly lost.

What’s interesting, of course, is why American workers don't maximize their paid time off. According to their research, the number one reason for Americans to leave some vacation days unused is ironic: many simply don’t want to “return to a mountain of work”, presumably a workload that would be heavier if they had not taken time off (40%). The other top two reasons include: “No one else can do the job” (35%) and not being able to afford a vacation (33%).

Interestingly, this is not just a situation that junior level employees face. In fact, 1/3 of respondents said that “taking time off [is] harder as you grow in the company.” That said, managers are a primary influence on employees who choose not to take all their time off. As Project: Time Off concludes:

Silence in the workplace remains a major issue, with nearly two-thirds (65%) of employees reporting that they hear nothing, mixed messages, or discouraging messages about taking time off. Without context and conversation around vacation, employees are plagued with uncertainty - not only for those unsure if they should take time off, but even for those who do. One in four (25%) are unsure ore agree that their company expects them to work while on vacation.

While surely some of these issues are employer-specific, there is also a broader cultural context. Most Europeans work far fewer hours than Americans, and also see vacation time as a right. In America, on the other hand, there is a culture that encourages the “work martyr”, as economist Robert Samuelson writes. Americans increasingly check their emails on vacation and millennials who should be most comfortable with technology allowing them to stay in touch while they are physically away from work are among those most fearful of taking longer vacations, citing a fear of seeming not devoted to work, or feeling replaceable.

Almost all employers in America offer some sort of paid vacation plan, according to the Society of Human Resource Managers. Since 2000, the average number of days we take has fallen from a 25 year average of approximately 20 days per year to 16 days per week. This is interesting given that at no other time in history have we had better tools for staying connected, or being available and reachable by managers and colleagues in case of emergency or other pressing issues.

For those who believe this is a problem for our general productivity or just well-being and happiness? Project: Time Off believes planning is the key. They have found that employees who plan to use all their time off are significantly more likely to actually use that time off. Which means it may not be so crazy to start making plans for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years in the middle of summer.


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