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 658 million unused days and countless unintended consequences.
The State of Vacation in America
A near majority (97%) of employers offer paid vacation plans, according to the Society of Human Resource Managers. For decades, Americans took advantage of the time off they worked so hard to earn. Unfortunately, with the introduction of technology into the workplace, America’s vacation usage fell below the long-term average in 2000, setting off a steady decline that has stubbornly continued ever since.
In 2015, American workers reported taking off just 16.2 days, almost a full week less compared to the pre-2000 average (20.3 days). We call this America’s Lost Week. 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.
With more than half (55%) of employees leaving days unused, America’s no vacation tendencies have created a stockpile of 658 million unused days. What’s worse—employees forfeited 222 million vacation days in 2015. 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 $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits across the workforce.
The work martyr syndrome combined with a culture of silence in the work place is keeping workers at their desks instead of using their time off. The top barriers for employees include:
- Return to a mountain of work, 37%
- No one else can do the job, 30%
- I cannot financially afford a vacation, 30%
- Taking time off is harder as you grow in the company, 28%
- Want to show complete dedication, 22%
Compared to previous Project: Time Off research, the challenges facing American workers have lessened slightly from 2014 to 2016. While the numbers are moving in the right direction, there is still vast improvement that needs to be made before we can proclaim the beginning of a real cultural shift in the workplace.
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 (65%) of employees say their company says nothing, sends mixed messages about, or discourages using their time off.
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.
Beyond the personal and professional benefits, the economic opportunity of Americans taking time off is noteworthy.
The more than 600 million unused vacation days represent billions in lost economic potential. Had Americans used the vacation time they earned in 2015, it would have meant $223 billion in spending for the U.S. economy. Servicing the needs of those unused vacation days would have created 1.6 million jobs, resulting in $65 billion in additional income. If Americans were to just use one more day, it would be $34 billion in total spending for the U.S. economy.
Employers also carry unused vacation 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.
The numbers add up, and it’s time to make a change. We must decide whether vacation time will become a casualty of the new working world or if we will take action to win back America’s Lost Week.
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, 80 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 paid time off.