Independence Day is a highlight of the summer for many Americans. The holiday is traditionally celebrated with barbecues and fireworks, and is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Unfortunately, July 4 falls on a Wednesday this year; whereas in other years, employees typically enjoy three-day or four-day weekends, this year most are just getting one day off in the middle of the week. Most national holidays in the US, like Presidents’ Day or Memorial Day, are observed on a Monday so as to create a three-day weekend, but the Fourth of July is always celebrated on July 4.
This has led to some extra stress and logistical challenges for managers this week, as they have had to juggle numerous requests for additional vacation days from employees trying to carve out a longer holiday for themselves: A small survey from Office Pulse found that most employees were planning to take at least one extra day off and that one in five managers were overwhelmed by the amount of vacation requests they were getting. Meanwhile, among those employees who were not taking extra days off, 19 percent said they would be “extra tired” or “hungover” when they returned to work on Thursday—among Millennials, 30 percent.
(Of course, not all US employers offer paid vacation, so many employees can’t afford to take additional time off at all.)
On the positive side, those who are able to make a five-day weekend out of the holiday (or even take the whole week off) have more time to travel. Whether or not they do so depends partly on the economy: The last time the fourth fell on a Wednesday, in 2012, travel trends were stagnant, whereas they set a record the time before that, in 2007. This year, AAA expects the number of Independence Day travelers to set a record again, predicting that 46.9 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home this holiday.
A recent survey by Glassdoor finds that very few employees in the UK are using all of their paid leave entitlement, while 40 percent of them are using less than half of it, Personnel Today’s Adam McCulloch observes:
The average figure of holiday taken by UK employees was 62%, while 91-100% of holiday entitlement was taken by 43%, the study found. A remarkable 13% reported only taking 20% of their allowance. The online survey carried out in April garnered responses from 2,000 full and part-time employed adults and also gauged the amount of work people said they did while taking time off. The results revealed that 23% of those on holiday regularly checked emails and 15% continued doing some work out of fear of being behind on their return and of missing targets.
Young workers were the least likely to take their full holiday entitlement, with only 35% of 18-24 year olds and 40% of 25-34 year olds taking all of their allowance. Half of employees (50%) said they could completely relax on holiday and that there was no expectation from their employers that they should be contactable. However, 20% reported that they were expected to be reachable and available to carry out some work if needed.
The underuse of vacation time may be a factor in the high levels of overwork and overload UK employees report, which cause stress and contribute to mental and physical health problems. Nearly one third of workers said in the latest edition of the CIPD’s UK Working Lives report that they suffered to some extent from “unmanageable” workloads, while 22 percent said they often felt “under excessive pressure,” another 22 percent said they felt “exhausted,” and 11 percent reported feeling “miserable” at work.
In recent years, surveys have shown that most Americans who receive paid vacation benefits don’t take all the leave to which they are entitled. According to Project: Time Off, our reluctance to take vacations has a significant impact on the economy, leading to over $200 billion worth of lost spending. Needless to say, the travel and tourism industry would prefer that the US workforce spend those billions, leading to marketing campaigns like this one from JetBlue, which pokes fun at Americans’ underused vacation time by advertising a fake line of office souvenirs such as the “HR scented candle”:
Ads like these are not new: A few years ago, for example, Maryland’s tourism board put out a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials showing vacation days being used for boring things like running errands or doctor’s appointments instead of going to the beach. The problem with these commercials is that they assumes that the decision not to take a vacation is always up to the employee, but as we know, there are clear organizational and personal reasons behind that decision.
While a growing body of research shows that taking regular vacations makes employees happier, healthier, more productive, and less likely to burn out—a win-win for the individual and their employer—getting employees to actually take vacations is still a challenge for many organizations. One proposed solution to employees’ reluctance to take breaks is to offer them unlimited leave, but critics of this approach point out that it can backfire, discouraging employees from taking time off because they don’t know how much they are really allowed or expected to take.
To correct for that tendency, some organizations offer employees incentives to take vacations, such as annual travel stipends that they must either spend on leisure travel or forfeit. Others have taken this a step further and make vacations a requirement rather than an option. To that end, Neil Pasricha and Shashank Nigam write at the Harvard Business Review about an experiment they conducted at Nigam’s small aviation strategy firm, SimpliFlying, where they required employees to take one out of every seven weeks off, on a regular schedule. Employees were strictly forbidden from contacting the office while on vacation, losing their pay for the week if they did:
After this experiment was in place for 12 weeks, we had managers rate employee productivity, creativity, and happiness levels before and after the mandatory time off. (We used a five-point Likert scale, using simple statements such as “Ravi is demonstrating creativity in his work,” with the options ranging from one, Strongly Disagree, to five, Strongly Agree.) And what did we find out?
The latest research into the vacation habits of US employees shows that Americans are getting more paid vacation days from their employers, but most are leaving at least some of that time on the table. At the Harvard Business Review, Liane Davey offers some practical suggestions for getting employees to actually use their vacation time:
For some people, not taking vacation is actually a selfish move. They find it incredibly arduous to prepare everything for their absence and conclude that it’s just not worth it. It’s your role to make preparing for vacation as smooth and seamless as possible. Over the long term, establishing backups for each role and codifying processes through knowledge management make it easier for any one person to be away with the confidence that their job will be in good hands. In the short term, provide a template that allows the person to document their ongoing activities or projects and assign someone to cover each aspect. Start this conversation a couple of weeks before vacation so that as many tasks as possible can be wrapped up before the vacation begins. A smooth getaway this year will increase the likelihood that the person will take more vacation next year. …
A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that nearly half of Americans aren’t planning to take a vacation this summer, mainly because they can’t afford to:
The new AP-NORC survey, conducted in May, said 43 percent of Americans won’t be taking a summer vacation. The top reason for skipping a trip was the cost, cited by 49 percent of non-vacationers. Another 11 percent said they can’t take the time off from work, while 3 percent said they don’t like to be away from work.
About half of Americans living in households making less than $50,000 a year don’t plan to take any summer vacation this year, and they’re especially likely to cite costs as a reason. And if your employer gives you paid vacation days, consider yourself lucky: Forty-one percent of those surveyed who work full or part time said they do not get any paid time off from their employers to use for vacation. Younger and lower-income workers are especially likely not to get any paid time off.
The poll also corroborated some of the findings of the latest survey on Americans’ vacation habits from Project: Time Off, including that most Americans whose jobs offer paid vacation or PTO use some of it, but many leave vacation days on the table. While only 14 percent of workers with paid vacation time told the AP-NORC poll that they did not use any of it, only half said they had used all or most of the days they were entitled to in the past year. By comparison, the Project: Time Off survey found that 54 percent of respondents failed to use all of their vacation time last year.
The latest survey from Project: Time Off, an initiative of the US Travel Association, finds that US employees are getting more vacation days from their employers, but still not taking full advantage of them all. Among full-time workers who receive paid time off, the average number of paid vacation days ticked up last year to 22.6, an increase of 0.7 days from 2015. Employees also used substantially more of their PTO in 2016, with the average worker taking 16.8 days off compared to 16.2 days the year before. While this is still well below the long-term average of 20.3 days in the 1980s and ’90s, the rising trend indicates that Americans may finally be getting over their recession-era fears of taking time off, Rebecca Greenfield reports at Bloomberg:
As workers feel more comfortable in their jobs, they feel more comfortable taking days off, said Evren Esen, the director of survey programs at the Society of Human Resource Management. “During the recession and post-recession, there may have been more of a sense of, ‘I need to be there, I need to make sure my job is secure,’ and not go off and take vacations multiple times a year,” she said.
Those attitudes haven’t vanished completely. Over half of the workers surveyed are leaving some vacation time on the table, Project: Time Off found. Even as they take more vacation days, the gap between the number of days they’re offered and the number of days they actually take isn’t narrowing.
In last year’s survey, Project: Time Off found that 55 percent of Americans with paid time off had left at least some of it on the table in 2015, representing a total of 658 million days of vacation that could have been. Indeed, last year was not much any better on that front, with 54 percent of respondents having failed to use all of their vacation time and the total number of untaken vacation days increasing to 662 million. The number of forfeited vacation days—those that could not be banked, rolled over, or cashed out—declined from 222 million to 206 million between 2015 and 2016, but the report estimates the value of last year’s forfeited benefits at $66.4 billion.