Americans Waste Record-Setting 658 Million Vacation Days

New Report Shows Critical Crossroads Between Taking Vacation Back or Letting It Go Extinct

WASHINGTON—American workers took slightly more vacation in 2015, up to 16.2 days from 16.0 days the year before, according to new research from Project: Time Off. But the meager increase comes as workers received an additional day (21.9 days on average), but used a lower share of vacation time than in 2014.

These findings, from Project: Time Off’s State of American Vacation 2016 report, provide the most comprehensive look at America’s vacation habits to date from a GfK survey of 5,641 U.S. employees who earn time off and economic analysis conducted by Oxford Economics.

It is commonly assumed that economic trends are driving the decline, but the State of American Vacation found no correlation to unemployment rates or consumer confidence. Rather, America’s time off habits closely track technology innovation and adoption trends, suggesting that connectivity has intensified Americans’ attachment to work and reduced their ability to break free of the office.

“Technological advancements have irreversibly changed the way we work—in many ways for the better—but the omnipresent office requires being intentional about our time,”   said Project: Time Off Senior Director and report author Katie Denis. “  Americans need to decide whether vacation will become a casualty of the new working world or if we will change to win back America’s Lost Week.”

More than half of American workers (55%) left vacation time unused in 2015. This adds up to 658 million unused vacation days. It is the highest number Project: Time Off has ever reported, far exceeding the previous 429 million count. The increase highlights the difference between American workers’ intent and action. Previous Project: Time Off surveys, conducted mid-year, asked about anticipated vacation usage. The latest survey, conducted in January 2016, asked respondents about their actual usage for 2015, providing a more accurate picture of America’s vacation habits. 

These unused days cost the U.S. economy $223 billion in total economic impact and 1.6 million jobs. There are significant costs to American workers as well. U.S. workers forfeited 222 million of the 658 million unused vacation days. These days cannot be rolled over, paid out, or banked for any other benefit—they are purely lost. This forgone time results in $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits annually. 

What’s Stopping Us? 
The reasons behind work martyrdom have lessened, even if only slightly, since 2014. Workers cite returning to a mountain of work (37% in 2016 vs. 40% in 2014) as the greatest challenge, followed by no one else can do the job (35% vs. 30%) and cannot afford a vacation (33% vs. 30%). 

Beyond the pressures workers place on themselves, managers play a key role in vacation habits as employees ranked their boss the most powerful influencer when it comes to taking time off. Further, 80 percent of employees said they would be likely to take more time off if they felt fully supported and encouraged by their boss. 

Unfortunately, nearly six in 10 (58%) employees report a lack of support from their boss and more than half (53%) report the same from their colleagues. Analysis found a positive 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 with their company and job. 

Support, however, is in short supply. Employees face a culture of silence when it comes to vacation time. Nearly two-thirds (65%) report that they hear nothing, mixed messages, or discouraging messages about taking time off.

Power of Planning 
The single-most important step workers can take is to plan their time off in advance, as more than half (51%) of planners used all their earned vacation time compared to 39% of non-planners. Yet less than half (49%) of households set aside time to plan their vacation time each year. Further, planners reported greater happiness in every category measured, especially relationships with partners and children.

“This is truly a crossroads for America. Are we living through the end of our vacation traditions?”   said Project: Time Off Managing Director Gary Oster. “  There are glimmers of hope, but to make real progress, we need to make the conscious choice that time off is as important as time on.” 

Additional Findings

  • Employees who take 10 or fewer 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.  
  • One in three managers (32%) never talk about the importance of taking paid time off with their direct reports. Another 11 percent only discuss it once a year.
  • Looking at regional usage of paid time off, employees in the Pacific (64%), West North Central (58%), and New England (58%) have the highest populations with unused time off, compared to the national average of 55%.

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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.

About Project: Time Off 
Project: Time Off is an initiative to win back America’s Lost Week of vacation. We aim to shift culture so that taking time off is understood as essential to personal well-being, professional success, business performance, and economic expansion. The initiative is supported by the Project: Time Off Coalition a broad-based group of organizations focused on changing America’s thinking and behavior about vacation time. Learn more at ProjectTimeOff.com

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