Why Don’t American Employees Take Vacation?

When was the last time you took a vacation? Has it been a while? Have you ever canceled or postponed vacation time due to work? If so, you’re not alone. According to research from Project: Time Off, 55 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their vacation time in 2015, resulting in a total of 658 million unused paid vacation days per year.

Expedia’s Vacation Deprivation Study determined that the average American worker earns 15 vacation days per year, of which they only take 12. This is a stark contrast to workers in Spain, France, Finland, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates who earn 30 days of paid vacation annually, of which they take all 30. Add to the fact that the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave, and one of the few with no maximum work week length. With 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females working more than 40 hours a week, the U.S. is one of the most overworked nations in the world.

What Is the Reason?

Despite establishing that most Americans need a vacation, why are so many relinquishing their time off? Project: Time Off reported that 37 percent of employees were too afraid of getting behind in their work, 35 percent said no one else could do their job, and 33 percent couldn’t afford a vacation. Additionally, 58 percent reported a lack of support from their boss, and 53 percent reported a lack of support from coworkers. In a similar survey by Glassdoor, 17 percent of employees gave up vacation time out of fear of losing their job, 19 percent hoped it would increase their chances for a promotion, and 13 percent wanted to outperform coworkers.

Other less-obvious reasons for lost vacation time can be identified, such as the decline of the union, leading to less protection for workers’ rights. Also, the recent outsourcing of U.S. jobs to countries with cheaper labor, such as Mexico, India, and China, prompts American workers to want to work that much harder in order to be productive. Finally, with job tenure being significantly shorter than in previous years and employers laying off workers more frequently, this can be an incentive to employees to work harder in order to retain their job as opposed to risking termination by not keeping pace with work colleagues or industry standards.

What Are the Results?

The most obvious side effect resulting from overwork and a lack of time off is job burnout. Long hours and heavy workloads can lead to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, weight gain, and high blood pressure. In addition, burnout can lead to sleeplessness, irritability, alcohol or substance abuse and a sense of apathy or contempt by employees for their job or employer, having significant negative effects on their quality of work or work output. If not remedied, the effects of burnout can be irreversible.

Another result of excessive work habits is diminished productivity, a direct contrast from its intended result. According to an article by Evan Robinson entitled “Why Crunch Modes Doesn’t Work: Six Lessons,” productivity is maximized when employees work a five-day, 40-hour workweek. When hours are extended, productivity begins to drop immediately and continues to drop until, at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work output equals that of eight 40-hour weeks. Regarding the short-term, Robinson equates working more than 21 hours continuously to being legally intoxicated. Longer periods of continuous work, such as months or even years without a break, drastically reduce cognitive function and increase the chance of employee error.

Finally, employees who choose to surrender their vacation days may actually harm the economy. When a person takes a vacation, they spend money on airfare or extra money on gas to drive to their destination. They book hotel rooms, eat in restaurants, visit museums or theme parks, and support the travel, hospitality, and tourism industry in several ways. By staying home and working, that support doesn’t exist. While one person’s decision to cancel his or her vacation is insignificant, consider the number it takes to add up to 658 million unused vacation days per year. This can be a considerable hit to the economy, and increasing unused vacation days only adds to the problem.

Despite the belief that longer work hours yield more rewards, there is evidence to the contrary. Project: Time Off found that employees who took ten or fewer days of vacation time were less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years than those who took 11 days or more. One could argue that this is because prolonged periods of work without a break are counterproductive. However, another reason could be that employers or managers who discourage employees from taking time off are less likely to award pay increases. Regardless, employees are far more likely to burn out from overwork than to benefit from it. The moral of the story: take your vacation time. You’ve earned it, and the break will do you good!

By John Feldmann

John Feldmann is a Senior Communications Specialist for Insperity in Houston, TX. With over a decade of marketing and employment branding experience in the recruiting and human resources industries, John specializes in employment- and HR-related content development for a variety of media types in order to communicate Insperity's brand to both business professionals and job seekers. Follow John on X @John_Feldmann.