Overwhelmed America: Why Don't We Use Our Paid Time Off?

Executive Summary

Americans are overwhelmed—but they aren’t taking the breaks they’ve earned. Nearly three-quarters of workers say they are stressed at work, with one-in-four reporting they are either “very” or “extremely” stressed.

It’s no surprise that Americans feel this way. Many workers leave their paid time off unused, despite near-universal recognition of the importance and benefits of time off, from reducing stress to improving productivity when we return to work.

But when the Project: Time Off asked GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications (GfK) to examine the attitudes and beliefs underlying America’s hard-charging work culture, GfK discovered that the benefits of vacation were no match for the fears that are keeping them at work.

Overwhelmed America revealed that workers construct many of their own biggest barriers to taking time off. Returning to a mountain of work and the feeling that nobody else could do their job were cited as the top reasons for not using time off. The effects of a tough economy still linger with one-third of respondents, who said they cannot afford to use their time off, and roughly a fifth of workers expressed concern that they would be seen as replaceable if they used their time off.

According to the survey, employees’ fears about using vacation are reinforced by their companies, where the silence can be deafening. While senior business leaders may support their employees in taking time off, they aren’t communicating it. In fact, two-thirds of employees are hearing nothing, negative or mixed messages from their employers about using time off.

Are you a work martyr? find out what is holding you back from taking time off.


GfK conducted a series of two focus groups in Baltimore, Maryland with full time workers who are compensated with earned leave, and one group among managers, directors, and vice presidents who have direct reports who must get their permission to use their earned leave.

GfK then conducted a survey of 1,303 American workers, age 18+, nationwide among those working 35 hours or more a week who receive paid time off using GfK’s KnowledgePanel®, including 235 senior business leaders. The survey was conducted June 20-30, 2014. The data were weighted and scaled to reflect Current Population Survey figures. The margin of error for workers overall is +/-2.71%, and +/-6.39% for the senior business leader sample. These data were weighted and scaled to ensure that sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of American adults working 35 hours a week or more.

Key Findings

While 96% of respondents recognize the importance of using time off, there are still 41% of Americans who do not plan on using all of their vacation days in 2014.

When it comes to taking time off, Americans themselves can be the biggest barriers. A variety of justifications lead about two-in-five workers (37%) to conclude it is not “easy” to take the time off they have earned. Top reasons workers say they leave vacation unused are fear of returning to a mountain of work (40%) and the belief that nobody else can do their job (35%). The effects of a tough economy still linger: one-third (33%) of employees say they cannot afford to use their time off and nearly a quarter (22%) of workers say that they do not want to be seen as replaceable. Roughly three-in-ten (28%) employees do not use all their time off because they believe it will show greater dedication to their company and their job.

America’s always-on work culture exerts a powerful influence on our decisions about using paid time off. A negative vibe towards time off combined with a lack of control when it comes to earned benefits create cultural barriers to taking time off. Two-thirds (67%%) of employees are hearing nothing, negative, or mixed messages from their employers about using vacation time. Despite being a significant part of their total compensation, nearly one-third of workers (31%) say they do not control their own PTO—the company does.

Senior business leaders know the company benefits when workers take time off. Yet Overwhelmed America shows that they are sending mixed messages to employees. One third of senior business leaders hardly ever discuss with their employees the benefits of taking time off, and 46% of bosses continue to stay connected to their job during time away, setting a bad example to their coworkers and direct reports.