Why 52% of Americans Still Lose Vacation Time

An annual survey finds some progress on the vacation front—but employers can do more.
By: | May 17, 2018 • 3 min read
Business man with head buried in laptop and help signal because Americans still lose vacation time

We’ve certainly covered before the issue of American workers and their vacation habits—or lack thereof. Yet there’s finally some good news (or not so good, if you happen to be one of those bosses who wants your employees always available at a moment’s notice): the annual Project: Time Off survey finds U.S. employees took an average of 17.2 days of vacation last year, the highest level in seven years.

Even so, workers continued to leave accrued vacation time on the table, with 52 percent of Americans saying they had lost vacation time that went unused last year. And, those relatively high vacation numbers for 2017 are still well below the average 20.3 days taken by Americans each year between 1978 and 2000, the survey finds.

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The U.S. continues to be the only industrialized first-world nation that does not mandate any paid time off. By comparison, workers in the U.K. can expect a statutory 28 days off (including public holidays), while Swedish workers get 34 days off, and workers in France get a whopping 36 days off annually (just how do all those Citroens get made?).

What’s behind the relatively low number of vacation days taken by Americans? A new survey from Kimble Applications, a professional-services-automation firm, suggests that too many projects and deadlines could be a major culprit, with 27 percent of survey respondents citing that as a reason for not taking time off. More than one in 10 (13 percent) cited the fear of returning to too much work.

And, for those lucky enough to actually go on vacation, nearly half keep themselves plugged in to work during their time off: Nearly half (48 percent) say they check in while on vacation, with 19 percent saying they do so every day. More than a quarter say they’re expected to be available for emergencies, and 9 percent say they’re expected to check in regularly.

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If yours is an organization where people simply aren’t comfortable with, or feel ill-equipped to, plan and take some down time, you can read these suggestions from startup founder Marcela Sapone. She advocates “micro breaks,” declaring time-off in advance and perhaps most importantly, modeling healthy behaviors at the top (including taking vacations).

Companies that fail to ensure their employees are taking enough vacation may pay in the long run, says Kimble Applications co-founder Mark Robinson.

“My experience is that businesses work best if there is clarity around [vacation entitlement] and people feel confident about planning their vacation well in advance,” he says. “Successful, sustainable organizations learn to plan their business around PTO time.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor for talent acquisition at Human Resource Executive®. He oversees coverage of talent acquisition and recruiting and also edits the weekly Recruiting Trends Bulletin e-newsletter and its associated website, RecruitingTrends.com. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]

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