American workers are overwhelmed. After years of being asked to “do more with less” workers are overstretched, stressed out, and exhausted. The always-on, 24/7 American work culture is taking a heavy toll, leading to 429 million wasted vacation days that undermine our personal, business, and economic well-being.
Simply put, taking earned time off is essential for a productive workforce, strong bonds with family and friends, and a fulfilled life.
The State of Time Off in America
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a combined 98 percent of employers offer paid time off or vacation. This means that nearly three-quarters of all American workers earn paid vacation time.
For decades, Americans took advantage of the time off they had earned but, unfortunately, times have changed. Americans are taking the least amount of vacation in nearly 40 years. American workers report just 16 days used in 2013, almost a full workweek less compared to the pre-2000 average (20.3 days). The growing stockpile of unused paid leave is contributing to worker burnout and even larger balance sheet liabilities that directly affect a company’s bottom line.
Many barriers prevent workers from fully using the time off they have earned—barriers deeply rooted in the culture of the American workplace. We are a nation of “work martyrs,” as we have become our own biggest barrier to taking vacation.
A variety of justifications lead about two-in-five workers (37%) to conclude it is simply not “easy” to take the time they have earned. Workers cite returning to a mountain of work (40%) and the feeling that nobody else can do their job (35%) as the top reasons they leave vacation unused. The effects of a tough economy still linger, with one-third (33%) of employees saying they cannot afford to use their time off, and a fifth (22%) of workers expressing concern that they do not want to be seen as replaceable.
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, two-thirds of American employees say their company says nothing, sends mixed messages about, or discourages using their time off.
The Benefits Taking Time Off Can Deliver
Huge majorities of American workers believe that time off helps them relax and recharge, and offers the opportunity to do what they enjoy. Nearly two-thirds say their concentration and productivity at work improve with taking time off and 61 percent report greater satisfaction at work after taking vacation time. 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.
American workers lost a total of 169 million vacation days in 2013. 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 $52 billion in forfeited benefits across the workforce.
Employees aren’t the only ones losing out. Employers carry unused PTO days as a liability on their balance sheets. This liability steadily accrues, year after year, totaling $224 billion in accumulated vacation time across the private sector. Perhaps more concerning, in 2014 alone, this liability grew by nearly $66 billion.
Beyond the personal and business benefits, the economic opportunity of American taking time off is noteworthy. If Americans were to use all their unused time off, it would deliver a $160 billion jolt to the U.S. economy, create 1.2 million new American jobs, and generate $21 billion in federal, state, and local revenues.
Encouraging workers to use just one more day of earned leave each year would generate $73 billion annually for our economy.
Further, if American workers were to return to pre-2000 vacation habits, the U.S. economy would enjoy a massive windfall. Annual vacation days taken by U.S. employees would jump 27 percent and deliver a $284 billion impact across the entire US economy.
The numbers add up. It’s time to make a change.