Wasted Vacation Takes Toll on Workers

Fewer vacation days are being taken while the number of days accrued has risen

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Jun 15, 2016
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U.S. workers are getting more vacation days but using fewer of them. And when they do go on vacation, many are continuing to work via their smartphones and laptops.

To a large extent, the blame falls on constant Internet connectivity, lack of manager encouragement and workers’ misperceptions about what happens if they do “unplug,” according to two new reports. The negative consequences of unused—or misused—vacation time include employee burnout and lower productivity.

From 1976 through 2000, full-time workers in the U.S. took an average of 20.3 annual vacation days. But beginning in 2000, vacation use fell below that long-term average, setting off a steady decline that has continued ever since, according to The State of American Vacation 2016, a June 2016 report by Project: Time Off, an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry trade group, which also released a companion infographic.

In the U.S., vacation use has now fallen to an average of 16 days a year—nearly a full week less than the average between 1976 and 2000.


Source: Project: Time Off, The State of American Vacation 2016

While the number of vacation days taken has declined, the number of vacation days accrued has increased:

  • Last year U.S. workers earned an average of 21.9 annual vacation days—a full day more than in 2014—but this didn’t mitigate the trend of taking fewer vacation days.

  • More than half of workers in the U.S.—55 percent—left vacation days unused in 2015, up from 42 percent in 2013.

The findings are based on a survey of 5,641 full-time U.S. workers who received paid time off, conducted in early 2016.

Fear of Disconnecting

“Much of the pressure not to take vacation is self-motivated,” said Katie Denis, senior program director at Project: Time Off in Washington, D.C. “And that’s exacerbated by our connectivity.”

“Work and leisure are blending into each other with 24/7 connectivity,” concurred Amy Freshman, senior director of global workplace enablement at payroll and benefits services firm ADP in the greater Boston area.

Even when employers limit to five work days (40 hours) the total of unused vacation days that can be carried over to the next year—now considered to be a best practice that encourages using vacation time rather than forfeiting it forever—employees often don’t take the vacation to which they’re entitled, she said.

And when they do go on vacation, employees increasingly are unable to disconnect, according to a 2016 report, The Evolution of Work, from the ADP Research Institute.

“While on the beach, employees will pick up their smartphones and scroll through e-mails,” Freshman said. It may be unrealistic to expect employees involved in ongoing projects not to keep tabs via e-mail and jot out quick responses, but “the greater issue is whether they’re staying behind to work in the hotel room while the family heads off to the beach,” she remarked. “Time off should be protected time, and it should really be time off.”

Getting the Message Across

Employers can help by showing that they support employees taking the vacation days they’ve earned. But Project: Time Off found that:

  • One in three managers (32 percent) never talked about the importance of taking paid time off with their direct reports.

  • Another 11 percent only discuss it once a year.

“Managers need to appreciate the power of their influence over employees and take the time to communicate and lead by example,” said Denis. “Companies set the tone for making vacation an accepted and encouraged practice.”

“Studies show when employees take a break, they come back recharged, re-energized and less stressed,” Freshman noted. “Organizations need to communicate the message, ‘You earned it, please use it—and truly shut down.’ ”

Mountains of E-Mail

Employees often fear being swamped by e-mails when they return. “When they get back, it’s an immediate loss of at least a day or two of productivity right off, spent wading through e-mail,” said Denis. But some innovative employers are tackling this issue head on, she noted:

  • The Huffington Post news and commentary website has an “e-mail detox program.” When employees go on vacation, they have the option of turning on an automatic e-mail response that says, “Thank you for your message. It has been deleted. Here’s the person you should get in touch with. Otherwise, I’ll be back on this day. Please contact me then.” Said Denis, “It helps to mitigate the fear of returning to a mountain of work.”

  • The Motely Fool investor website has its Fool’s Errand—a drawing where employees can win $1,000 and a week off that must be taken on short notice. “The purpose is to make sure that employees are appropriately cross-trained, because the company sees it as a point of failure if somebody leaves the office and there’s nobody else who can step in,” Denis said.

Efforts such as these can counter what Denis called “ ’work martyr tendencies,’ which is the internalized fear that ‘no one else can do my job,’ or that taking time off shows a lack of dedication that will hurt your chances to grow within the company.”

These fears often reflect flawed thinking, Denis said, referencing a 2013 survey that the U.S. Travel Association did with the Society for Human Resource Management, Vacation's Impact on the Workplace. HR leaders overwhelmingly said employees who take vacation are more productive, more creative and better overall performers.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow me on Twitter.

Related SHRM Article:

Employees Should Take Their Vacations​, SHRM Online Benefits, June 2016

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