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More People Are Taking Time Off, and That's Good for Business

A woman relaxes on a beach chair in front of the ocean.

​U.S. workers took an average of 17.2 days of vacation in 2017, jumping nearly a half day from 2016. This marks the highest level of vacation usage since 2013 and more than a full-day increase since bottoming out at 16 days in 2014. 

The finding comes from the State of the American Vacation 2018, a survey of more than 4,000 U.S. workers on their vacation habits conducted each year by Project: Time Off, a research group located in Washington, D.C.

The United States is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—a group of 37 countries that work to stimulate economies and world trade—that does not mandate paid vacation. Research consistently shows the health benefits of taking vacation time, like improved productivity, lower stress and better mental health.

Project: Time Off's research shows that employees rate paid vacation as the No. 2 most-important benefit, after health care, said Katie Denis, senior director and lead researcher. However, Denis pointed out that many workers still do not take full advantage of this benefit. 

It can be tricky to take a vacation at a firm where the culture doesn't push workers to take a break. "Two-thirds of employees say they hear very little about [using] vacation time from their companies," Denis said. "That silence creates a vacuum, and we fill that vacuum with our anxieties and assumptions about what our bosses and colleagues could think about our vacation time. If the lines of communication were opened, employees might be surprised to learn that the 2018 research shows that the clear majority of bosses agree" that vacation improves an employee's focus (78 percent) and alleviates burnout (81 percent).

The Project: Time Off research found that employees who reported that their company encourages vacation (68 percent) are much happier with their jobs than those who work at places where either vacation is discouraged or managers are ambivalent about taking time off (42 percent). They are also more likely to use all of their vacation time (77 percent compared with 51 percent).  

Graph on Vacation Time.png

So why is it that workers don't take vacation? According to a 2017 survey by Glassdoor, the reasons U.S. workers don't use their vacation time include:


  • Their workload is too great, no one else at their company can do the work and they fear they will fall behind.
  • They worry they will miss out on participating in an important project, decision or meeting.
  • They fear pending layoffs, so they bank all their vacation time to cash out should they lose their job.
  • They fear they can't afford to pay for a vacation, so why even plan one?

  • They feel badly about leaving the office for too long because they think their team might feel lost or overwhelmed.
  • They feel badly that they can afford to pay for a vacation when others in the organization can't.

    Workplace Pressures
  • Many said they either aren't sure or don't think their company wants them to use all the vacation time they earn. Employees who worried that taking vacation would make them appear less dedicated or replaceable were dramatically less likely to use all their vacation time (61 percent left vacation time unused, compared with 52 percent who didn't worry about this). 
  • Even if they are physically away from the office, they are expected to check and reply to e-mail, participate virtually in meetings and check voice messages. So why use their vacation time for that?

Given these workplace pressures, Mark Gorkin, a stress resilience expert and consultant in Columbia, Md., said he believes that the typical 24/7 "always-on" work culture is causing increased employee burnout.

Knowing this about why workers don't use their vacation paid time, why might they be more willing to take vacations now than in years past?

The Project: Time Off survey authors wrote that employers are creating a more positive vacation culture. Their 2018 survey shows that 38 percent of employees said their company culture encouraged vacation, compared with 33 percent last year.

Employees are increasingly aware that if they take time off, they will perform better at work. In his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (Crown Business, 2010), Shawn Achor cites research from the American Psychological Association that found when "the brain can think positively, productivity improves by 31 percent, sales increase by 37 percent, and creativity and revenues can triple."

Lisa Frye is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.  


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