Angst, Fear and Guilt Convince Workers to Avoid Vacation

Getting ahead, examples set by managers are other reasons Americans don’t take PTO

By Dana Wilkie Aug 25, 2014
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Summer’s almost over. Did you shortchange yourself on vacation?

If you’re like a lot of Americans, you did.

Nine million Americans took a full week off in July 1976, with July traditionally being the most popular month for summer vacations. In July 2014, just 7 million did, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. That’s especially startling considering the fact that 60 million more Americans are employed today than in 1976.

Given that many HR departments—in the interest of boosting morale and productivity—urge employees to use their paid time off (PTO) and to unplug from work when they do, why does this continue to be the finding of so many studies and surveys, year after year?

Vacation-less Trend

The BLS data comes from the Current Population Survey, which measures the number of people who were not at work during the survey reference week, which is generally the calendar week containing the 12th of the month. This week is chosen because it tends to exclude major holidays. The reference week, however, may not represent when people take vacation, particularly long periods of vacation, said Dori Allard, chief of the BLS Division of Labor Force Statistics.

However, plenty of research shows a strong tendency for American workers to leave their vacation time on the table.

The average American gets 14 paid days off from work each year but actually uses only 10 of those days, according to an annual survey by the travel company Expedia.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the U.S. Travel Association found a similar result, that many employees leave an average of three days unused each year.

Travel Effect, the U.S. Travel Association’s research arm, reported in “Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Paid Time Off?” that although 96 percent of American workers say they recognize the importance of using their PTO, 4 in 10 say they won’t use at least some of theirs in 2014.

More than one-third of Americans take 50 percent or less of their PTO, according to a survey of 1,000 full-time employees by Virgin Pulse, a wellness program provider that is part of the Virgin Group. Forty-one percent said they felt “guilty” or “stressed” about taking time off.

And about 15 percent of U.S. employees who are entitled to paid vacation time haven’t used any of it in the past year, according to a March 2014 survey of 952 employees for the career site Glassdoor.

Side Effects of Going Vacation-Less

The ill effects of refusing to go on vacation can include fatigue, poor morale, heart problems and reduced productivity. In addition, those who resist vacation often refuse to delegate duties and thus make colleagues feel guilty.

Yet the trend toward fewer and shorter vacations continues, begging the question: Why?

Travel Effect took a close look at the attitudes and beliefs of America’s work culture, and at the reasons employees don’t take time off. It found that quota-driven workplaces make it difficult to go on vacation, because they require one to work double time in order to meet goals either before taking time off or after returning to work. Travel Effect found that 40 percent of U.S. workers cite the heavy workload awaiting their return as the top challenge in taking PTO.

In addition, uncertainty about job security and stagnant median incomes could be reasons workers are taking fewer or shorter vacations. The recent recession and the economy’s slow recovery may have workers scared about taking too much time off, as they fear they may be seen as dispensable.

“Absolutely, employees and employers are both cautious about the economic backdrop that we are all experiencing,” said Evren Esen, director of SHRM’s Survey Research Center.

Some people believe that avoiding vacation will boost their careers. An August 2014Wall Street Journal articlecited a 2013 survey of 971 employees by Oxford Economics, a forecasting and consulting firm, that found about 13 percent of managers are less likely to promote employees who take all their vacation time. Employees who took less than their full vacation time earned on average 2.8 percent more in the next year than employees who took all of their vacation, according to a German study published in 2012 in the DIW Economic Bulletin.

Cures for Vacation Avoiders

Is it possible HR professionals and managers send the verbal message that workers should take time off, but then broadcast the unspoken message that it’s the workers who refuse to take a day off who tend to get ahead?

“It relates to the culture and what employees see others doing,” Esen said. “Subtle messages, positive and negative, can impact how employees perceive organizational support for using vacation time.”

One cure for vacation resisters is a mandatory-vacation policy. Not allowing workers to carry their vacation time into a new year encourages the use of PTO. Travel Effect found that 5 of 6 workers employed by companies with a “use it or lose it” policy planned to use all their PTO in 2014, while less than half (48%) of workers who could roll PTO over, bank it or be paid out for their unused PTO planned to use all of it. Slightly more than one quarter of workers reported that their employers had a “use it or lose it” policy.

In addition, more companies are offering cash to finance employees’ getaways. For example, some employers have an employee purchase program that includes vacation packages in their voluntary benefit offerings. This payroll-deducted voluntary benefit lets employers make available vacation options such as hotels, cruises, destination packages and all-inclusive resorts that workers can pay for by having the cost deducted from their paycheck through manageable payments over 12 months.

Walking the walk is important. Travel Effect found that companies that encourage PTO employ more people who are “extremely,” “very” or “somewhat” happy with their professional success and personal financial situation, compared to those who work at companies that discourage PTO, send mixed messages about it or send no message at all.

“When employees see that the culture really supports taking time off, then employees feel more comfortable doing so,” Esen said. “This means that employees need to see leaders and their direct supervisors using their vacations and disconnecting from work. Actions speak louder than words.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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