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The Vacation Paradox: Why Employees Leave Time on the Table

Why workers aren’t using their vacation time—and what employers can do about it.

In Central Florida, workers at the area's hotels, restaurants and theme parks confess that they rarely take a vacation. Many take only two- to three-day breaks at a time, spend their leave doing errands and chores, or ease their guilt about being "off" by staying glued to work e-mail and text messages, according to researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

This research doesn't just reflect the sad state of vacation use in Central Florida. It also mirrors other surveys and reports: U.S. employees are leaving an increasing number of vacation hours on the table. Many don't take full advantage of open-leave policies and tend to enjoy only brief breaks, or else spend time during their days off working anyway.

What's behind the shame about taking time off? And why do people feel like they need to check in with work while on leave—or take shorter vacations?

For one thing, many workers are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and are worried about job security and the economy, says Marisol Hughes, executive vice president and general counsel at Tampa, Fla.-based talent consultancy WilsonHCG. Hence, they want to show their value by being at work. In addition, other workplace experts say that ambiguous "unlimited time off" policies, along with flexible- and remote-work practices, may be culprits.

Of course, time away from work is beneficial because employees are more productive and engaged when they come back. To help their workers take advantage of time off, business leaders need to encourage its use and demonstrate that it's OK to take a break.

Understanding Vacation Reluctance in the Workplace

In 2021, U.S. workers were about half as likely to take vacation in any given week as they were 40 years before, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the vacation rate—defined as the share of workers on vacation for all of a given week—fell to 1.7 percent of the workforce in 2022, compared with 3.3 percent in 1980.

In 2018, American workers left 768 million vacation days on the table, totaling around $65.5 billion in lost benefits to employees, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Research suggests that employees use fewer vacation days when they think they can't detach from work while they're off, don't expect good outcomes from a vacation—such as feeling relaxed or connecting with loved ones—or fear repercussions, e.g., experiencing stress, feeling guilty or spending too much money.

"We think people are less motivated to go on vacation if they think they will have difficulties untethering from their work," says Lauren Kuykendall, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., discussing the research she conducted with colleagues.

And who is likely to have the hardest time detaching on vacation? "People who supervise others, don't have anyone who can cover for them while they are away, or work in jobs with high levels of competitive pressure," Kuykendall says.

Encouraging Time Off Through Leave Policies

Companies' rules on leave may be contributing to the problem. "Some policies have a negative effect on the amount of vacation people take," says Edwin Torres Areizaga, chair of the Department of International Hospitality and Service Innovation at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and co-author of the research on the hospitality workers in Central Florida. "For instance, there's the 'use it or lose it' at-the-end-of-the-year policy, which tends to result in employees losing vacation days."

 Some policies have a negative effect on the amount of vacation people take.’
Edwin Torres Areizaga

There are also "buyout" policies, under which companies buy back vacation days from employees. But again, Torres says, the result of these policies is fewer vacation days taken by employees.

Workplace experts often question whether companies' tendencies to offer open leave instead of structured leave might contribute to employees' reluctance to take time off.

Some employers' policies provide a finite number of vacation days that each employee can use within a certain time period—within a year, for instance. Open leave, on the other hand, lets workers take off as much time as they like, so long as they keep up with their work and get a supervisor's approval.

But the latter approach can chill a worker's enthusiasm for taking leave if there is ambiguity around the amount of time they are "allowed" to take off. Employees may be more inclined to take vacation if—at any given moment—they can see how much time off they're allowed, how much they're accruing and how much they have left.

Hughes, however, notes that WilsonHCG's open-leave policy hasn't led workers to take less time off. In fact, she says they take about the same amount of leave as they did before the open-leave program started.

"Having a set number of days ticking down would cause employees to stress over taking days off and feel like they must choose, for example, between taking that week off for a friend's trip and visiting grandparents for the holidays," Hughes says. "With unlimited PTO, that stress of a finite number of days off disappears."

From Work Guilt to Embracing Time Off

While workers in countries other than the U.S. tend to embrace vacation time and take long stretches of it, the American work ethic is not so laid-back, Torres says. And that ethic tends to strengthen during troubled times. Employees often feel a sense of obligation and responsibility toward their employers and experience shame or guilt for not only taking off, but also for leaving colleagues behind with more work.

Even when employees do take time off, they might not use it for vacation purposes. Because some employees don't have access to sick days, they will save vacation days for a "rainy day." "Therefore, some vacation days are used to take a sick child to the doctor, to run errands and [for] other non-vacation purposes," Torres says. "Our study also showed that employees would engage in 'chunking' their vacation into smaller pieces—two days here, three days there."

"Rachel," who participated in Torres' research, said, "So, like I used five days' worth of vacation to literally clean up my house. The flexibility was there to be able to do it because of the days. But was it a true vacation?"

Another participant named "Jansen" said, "I have a lot of responsibility here, so I try to leave when it's downtime. If I can take a full week, I do. If not, I'll just split, you know, a three-day weekend there or whatnot, but whatever time allows."

Torres says that in other parts of the world, it's more of a cultural norm to take consecutive days off. "However, in the United States, taking shorter and perhaps more frequent sets of days off is more common," he says. "Therefore, being away from work for an extended period is not the social norm."

Social pressure may be influencing this trend. A 2019 survey by Alamo Rent a Car showed that about half (48 percent) of employees said they felt shamed by co-workers, their supervisors or others for taking time off to go on a vacation—an increase from 41 percent the year before. In particular, parents felt "vacation shame" (55 percent) more than nonparents (36 percent). Generation Z employees (76 percent) and Millennials (63 percent) were significantly more likely to feel vacation shame than Generation X employees (44 percent) or Baby Boomers (24 percent).

Overcoming Financial Barriers to Vacation

Many employees, especially those with lower incomes, say they hesitate to take vacation because of the expense. Kuykendall's research notes that cost is one of the strongest predictors of unused vacation: "Student loans, barriers to homeownership, child care and college … leave many families feeling like they just can't spend [the] money."

Some organizations are trying to address those financial worries. One relatively new policy is to pay employees to take time off.

Under this practice, coined "paid, paid vacations," companies pay workers to take leave, so long as the money is spent strictly on vacation expenses.

"Although this solution does appear to be a potentially promising way to address financial barriers to going on vacation, research is needed to examine the effectiveness of such policies," according to Kuykendall and her colleagues.

Connected or Chained by Technology?

While modern technology allows employees to work from just about anywhere, it also makes it easier for them to interrupt a vacation. In a 2021 survey by Korn Ferry, 61 percent of professionals said they usually check in with work at least once a day while on vacation. And perhaps not coincidentally, that same year, almost 9 in 10 (89 percent) of 1,000 U.S. workers surveyed by Visier said they had experienced occupational burnout.

Many participants in  Torres' study said they answered e-mails and kept in touch with their workplace during vacations to avoid a "backlog" of work when they returned. Others simply felt obligated to check in.

Study participant "Mark" said, "I always tell them I'm available 24/7. But if there's an issue, feel free to e-mail me. If I have any connectivity, I'll try to get back to you as soon as I can. But like I said, I'm always—you know, I can always be reached."

The Importance of Planning for Unplugged Time

Company leaders who really want employees to take time off will teach their supervisors to think carefully and plan well ahead. A vacationing worker may need someone to keep track of their day-to-day duties. To keep projects on track, other team members' or clients' expectations and deadlines may need to be adjusted. Or perhaps another employee might need to be available to deal with urgent issues.

"When work occurs in teams or client-facing roles, enabling people to go on truly detached vacations requires a lot of planning and forethought," Kuykendall says. "These types of planning and coordination should be a regular part of project management, but I'm not sure how widespread they are. Employees who do not have these supports may struggle to see how they could possibly stop working for a week and may choose to forgo vacation rather than going on vacation only to be preoccupied by work and swamped with e-mails and urgent tasks upon their return."

The Role of Leadership in Vacation Culture

Many workers may be familiar with this scenario: While on vacation, a supervisor leaves an employee in charge, and the supervisor says they won't be checking e-mail. Yet, the supervisor e-mails the employee midweek asking them to act on some pending issues at work.

 We're less likely to feel confident we can actually untether from work if it's not modeled or encouraged by others at our workplace.’
Lauren Kuykendall

If, as the research suggests, supervisors and those in competitive industries are the least likely to detach while on vacation—and therefore to take vacation—then it stands to reason that they may be the least inclined to lead by example.

"We're less likely to feel confident we can actually untether from work if it's not modeled or encouraged by others at our workplace," Kuykendall says. "These factors are especially likely to impact lower-status employees, who may be more concerned about how they're perceived and to conform to what is typical in their organization. If leaders are not encouraging and modeling truly detached vacations, it's unlikely their employees will feel free to take such vacations, either."

To encourage time off, Hughes urges workers to post photos of their vacations to internal company websites. She makes sure her reports see her regularly taking leave to spend time with her children and to enjoy other activities. This, she says, "shows people it's OK to do the same."


Dana Wilkie is a freelance writer based in Ormond Beach, Fla.

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