The State of American Vacation: How Vacation Became A Casualty of Our Work Culture

Over the past fifteen years, American workers have been taking less and less vacation. Could the trend line finally be changing course? 

Project: Time Off’s latest research suggests America’s vacation deprivation era is not yet over. In fact, it may be getting worse. 

The way Americans work has irreversibly changed. We are connected like never before, to each other and to the office. It is time to 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. 

Methodology

GfK conducted an online survey using the GfK KnowledgePanel® from January 20-February 16, 2016 with 5,641 American workers working at least 35 hours per week, including 1,184 managers who are company decision-makers. GfK’s KnowledgePanel® is the only large-scale online panel based on a representative random sample of the U.S. population.

Oxford Economics used the GfK survey results as well as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey to estimate historical levels of vacation activity. See the report for a full methodology.

Key Findings

Finding America’s Lost Week

For decades, Americans enjoyed taking more than 20.3 days of vacation each year. But beginning in 2000, vacation usage fell below that long-term average, setting off a steady decline that has stubbornly continued ever since. While there have been occasional time-off upticks since 2000, they later proved to be anomalies rather than a reversal of the inexorable, downward trend. 

Previous research conducted by Project: Time Off found our nation’s vacation usage had fallen to 16.0 days a year—nearly a full week less than the average between 1978 and 2000. This is America’s Lost Week. In the latest analysis of vacation usage, American workers took 16.2 days of vacation in 2015.

Behind the Numbers

More than half of American workers surveyed—55 percent—left vacation days unused in 2015. This study is the first time Project: Time Off has ever reported a majority of American workers not using all their vacation. Previous research by Project: Time Off showed that 42 percent of Americans were leaving vacation time on the table.

The 55 percent of under-vacationed Americans left a total 658 million vacation days unused. It is the biggest number Project: Time Off has ever reported, far exceeding the previous estimate of 429 million unused days. 

The good news: the jump in total days unused does not reflect employee behavior growing that much worse; rather, it is the difference between American workers’ intent and reality. Previous Project: Time Off surveys were conducted mid-year, asking respondents how much vacation time they anticipated using during the year. But the latest survey was conducted in January 2016, with the requirement that respondents know exactly the amount of time they used in the prior year, painting a more accurate, though still depressing, picture.

Perhaps more staggering than America’s 658 million unused vacation days is that Americans lost 222 million of them. Those days cannot be rolled over, paid out, or banked for any other benefit—they are purely lost. That’s an average of two full days (2.0) per worker.

By giving up this time off, Americans are effectively volunteering hundreds of millions of days of free work for their employers, which results in $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits.

Even worse than working as unwitting volunteers, employees who take little vacation time could be hurting their chances at a raise or bonus. Employees who take 10 or less days of vacation time are less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years than those who took 11 days or more.

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.

What's Stopping Us?

The workplace barriers to taking vacation reflect previous Project: Time Off research, with fears that employees would return to a mountain of work (37%) and that no one else can do the job (30%) cited as the greatest challenges. The feeling that it is harder to take time off the higher up you get in a company also featured prominently (28%), followed by the idea that employees want to show complete dedication to their company and job (22%). 

Compared to previous results, the challenges facing American workers have lessened—albeit only slightly. The numbers are moving in the right direction, but there is still vast improvement that needs to be made before proclaiming the beginning of a cultural shift in the workplace.

Real workplace change depends on America’s 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.

Unfortunately, employees are not feeling that support. Nearly six in ten (58%) employees report a lack of support from their boss and, perhaps more surprisingly, more than half (53%) sense a lack of support from their colleagues. There is a direct correlation between employees who feel strong support from their bosses and colleagues and employee engagement. The more support an employee feels, the more likely they are to report higher levels of happiness.

Employees may not sense support because their work environments do not provide any direction about vacation. 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 or agree that their company expects them to work while on vacation.

The culture of silence has created a vacuum, and American workers have filled that vacuum with the pressure they put on themselves. That pressure is much more pronounced than what they feel from their boss or their company. Nearly a third (31%) of employees say they put “a lot” or “some” pressure on themselves to check in with work when they are on vacation, almost twice as high as employees who report feeling pressure from their boss (17%).

Finding the Way Forward

Vacation is not yet extinct. Americans in dire need of a break can take simple steps to mitigate their fears about taking time off and make their vacations possible. 

The single-most important step workers can take is to plan their time off in advance. Yet less than half (49%) of households set aside time to plan the use of their vacation time each year. 

Planners have an advantage over non-planners. They use more of their time: 51 percent of those who plan took all of their vacation time, where just 39 percent of non-planners did. 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. Where just 46 percent of non-planners took a week or more, 69 percent of planners were able to do so. 

The time spent planning correlated with greater happiness in every category measured. Their personal relationships show some significant differences, with 85 percent of planners reporting that they are happy with their relationships with their significant other, compared to 72 percent of non-planners. Similarly, 69 percent of planners compared to 60 percent of non-planners report being happy with their relationships with their children.

The amount of time taken also shows a clear correlation to happiness at home. The more vacation days used, the lower the stress. 



Beyond their personal lives, planners and non-planners have statistically significant differences in their personal financial situations and professional success. Eighty-one percent of planners say they are happy with their financial situation compared to 71 percent of non-planners; and 90 percent of planners are happy with their professional success compared to 82 percent of non-planners.

Planning also extends to how American workers take their time off. There is no “right” way to use vacation time; however, setting boundaries for how connected they choose to be can help facilitate more effective time off. 

There is no slowing down technological advancement. The workplace will always be at Americans’ fingertips. These advances have improved life immeasurably, but have also created the conditions that require employees take an active role in creating time. Vacation time will not happen without dedicated thought and planning. 

Note: Project: Time Off recently released new research that updates some of the facts and figures in this resource. See how they’ve changed in our new report, The State of American Vacation 2017