The Under-Vacationed Nation

The Under-Vacationed Nation

Andrew Soergel at US News and World Report outlines the troubling findings of a new study into Americans’ vacation habits:

The average American worker took about 16 days of vacation in 2015 – relatively unchanged from the year before but down notably from the 20-day average seen between the late 1970s and 2000, according to a new report from Project: Time Off, an initiative launched by the U.S. Travel Association. What’s more, more than half of U.S. workers – 55 percent – left at least some vacation time on the table in 2015. All told, the report – which involved a survey of more than 5,600 employed Americans – estimates a whopping 658 million vacation days went unused. Collectively, that’s more than 1.8 million days that could have been spent on a beach. …

All told, the study estimates 55 percent of U.S. employers allow their workers to roll over unused vacation time into the next calendar year. Another 19 percent pay workers for time they didn’t use on a retreat from the office. And about 27 percent have a “use it or lose it” policy.

Still, though, it’s estimated that 222 million would-be vacation days essentially were forfeited in 2015, meaning they could not be banked, rolled over or used for some other benefit. About 37 percent of respondents said returning to “a mountain of work” was at least one of the reasons why they couldn’t take more time off. Another 35 percent said they couldn’t leave because “no one else can do the job,” and 33 percent said they couldn’t afford to go on a trip.

The dollars-and-cents impact of this lost vacation time is significant, according to the report, which calculates the value of the vacation benefits American employees left on the table last year at $61.4 billion. Had they used those vacation days, the report adds, this would have resulted in $223 billion of spending, which would have created 1.6 million jobs and $65 billion in additional income.

Of course, this study is backed by the US Travel Association and reflects the interests of its sponsor in making a case for more vacations rather than less, so it must be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the point that Americans are not taking the time off to which they are entitled, these findings square with what we already know: Even if US employees have paid leave available to them, they are unlikely to use it if they don’t feel that their employer supports that choice. This report backs that up as well: 80 percent of employees said they would take more time off if they felt their employers fully supported and encouraged it.

Here at CEB, our research into employees’ rewards preferences has found that vacation rollover is one of the top three reward attributes that employees are most sensitive to. Basically, if you allow them to roll over even a little of their unused vacation time, you get a big boost to employee value (and by extension a lift in talent outcomes). The value employees place on this benefit is easy to understand: If they feel they can’t take the vacation this year, and then it’s lost when the year ends, they will (perhaps rightly) fault their manager and the organization for not letting them use their benefit.

Part of the responsibility for fixing American attitudes toward vacation lies with employees, who need to overcome their fears of using the vacation time they have, and plan vacations far enough in advance that they don’t feel like they’re leaving their manager or teammates in the lurch. But there is also implicit guidance here for managers and benefits professionals to better communicate the importance of taking vacation.

Responsible vacationing is like responsible health care: It helps employees be healthy but also helps increase productivity for the organization. Getting these partners to advocate for vacation is part of the process of achieving that.