Here’s a sad reality: U.S. workers earned an average of 21.9 vacation days last year, up a full day from 2014. Yet despite accruing more paid time off, more than half (55%) left their time on the table, according to Project: Time Off’s new report, The State of American Vacation.
Researchers polled 5,600 working adults about their vacation habits and discovered that in total, the number of days wasted in 2015 was 658 million. That’s a full week less that workers were accustomed to taking 15 years ago. For those whose unused vacation days don’t roll over into the next year, a whopping 222 million days were lost.
The researchers write that beginning in 2000:
Vacation usage fell below that long-term average, setting off a steady decline that has stubbornly continued ever since. While there have been occasional time-off upticks since then, they later proved to be anomalies rather than a reversal of the inexorable, downward trend.
In a surprising twist, the reluctance to take paid time off doesn’t correspond to economic trends or consumer confidence. In analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data on vacation usage and unemployment, the report shows that in years with the highest number of people out of work (1982 and 2010), Americans were still taking advantage of vacation.
In 1982, workers used an average of 20.9 vacation days a year, and in 2010, when unemployment reached 9.6%, Americans took an average of 17.6 days off a year. By contrast, in 2015, the percentage of people without jobs reduced to 5.3%, yet the vacation time taken shrunk to an average of 16.2 days a year.
The irony is that these unused vacation days impacts the economy in ways we may not be aware of. "By giving up this time off, Americans are effectively volunteering hundreds of millions of days of free work for their employers," the researchers write, "which results in $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits."
Beyond that, they estimate that those days had the potential to inject $223 billion to the U.S. economy.
They break it down this way: Handling the demand created by people taking those days off would require creating 1.6 million more jobs. This, in turn, results in additional income for those workers of $65 billion. The researchers estimate that even using one more day would add $34 billion in spending to our economy.
Polling respondents reveal that workers with the best intentions don’t make good on their desire to take vacation. Comparing last year’s responses about workers’ intent to use their time off didn’t square with the reality. The researchers found that if American workers made good on their intentions to take vacation, it could have boosted the economy by $64.5 billion.
The reason we are becoming a nation of workaholics isn’t just due to 24/7 connectivity, courtesy of our mobile devices. According to a recent survey of nearly 9,700 full-time workers, EY, the global assurance, tax, transaction, and advisory services firm, found that one-third of employees report that managing their personal and professional lives has become more difficult. Those surveyed reported working more hours in the last five years, especially as they increased responsibilities at work (moving into management) and at home (caring for family).
This squares with some of the results of Project: Time Off’s report. The managers surveyed said they believed it was harder for them to take time off. Nearly half (47%) were afraid of returning to a backlog of work, as compared to 37% of employees who reported the same. It was the same for self-imposed pressure to check in when they did take time away. Forty-five percent of managers said they felt responsible for checking in, as opposed to just 24% of non-management employees.
Part of this has to do with personal validation, according to Leslie Perlow, a professor with Harvard Business School. "The more you respond, the more people email you, and so there’s very positive reinforcement," she told Fast Company in a previous interview.
On the flip side, employees overwhelmingly believe that their workplaces don’t support taking vacation. They reported that their bosses had the biggest influence on their decision to take time off, more so than family.
Project: Time Off’s researchers found, "Silence in the workplace remains a major issue, with nearly two-thirds (65%) of employees reporting that they hear nothing, mixed messages, or discouraging messages about taking time off."
Even those companies that offer unlimited vacation have to encourage their staff to use their paid time off. Startups such as Buffer and Evernote have resorted to paying employees $1,000 if they took a vacation of at least one week.
The report did conclude on a positive note, as the researchers believe that vacation isn’t going to go extinct. They noted that planning a vacation in advance led to better follow-through and using more of the time available to take off. Further, planning was responsible for a mood boost. Workers who planned their vacations resulted in increased happiness across nine factors, including professional success, financial situation, and their company.