American culture places pride on work, which is admirable, but how much is too much?
Numerous reports over the past several years have demonstrated time and again that U.S. workers have a habit of not using all of their vacation days. In a 2016 report published by Project Time Off, researchers found 55 percent of American workers surveyed said they left vacation days unused in 2015, totaling a whopping 658 million days. That’s a lot of time.
While some employers might think this is a good thing, it’s not. Did you know that not using vacation days can lead to problems in the workplace? If your employees aren’t using their time, it’s valuable for you to understand why this happens, the negative effects it can have, and the potential solutions to the problem.
Why Are People Not Taking Vacation Time?
There are no federal laws governing paid time off (PTO), so it’s up to employers to decide how much to award their employees. According to figures published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, 73 percent of (civilian) employers offer vacation time, indicating roughly one-fourth of people aren’t taking days off simply due to the fact they are not awarded them. Being that the other three-quarters of employers do offer vacation days, this means people are simply choosing not to use them. But why?
Some corporate environments offer time but either blatantly or quietly discourage employees from taking it. Others have scaled back on the number of vacation days originally given to employees upon hire, thinking they’ll save money.
A percentage of employees themselves are at fault, too. Many people refuse to use their time because they are too competitive with their colleagues, feel they are indispensable, and/or they are simply addicted to their work and don’t know how to break away. Other reasons include:
- Feeling pressured not to use PTO because colleagues or supervisors don’t
- Being distressed over job security or losing out on promotional opportunities
- Worried work will pile up in their absence
- Feeling guilty over taking vacation
- Don’t want to feel replaceable
Even if employees’ fears are groundless, most employers are not doing anything to correct these perceptions. Instead, they largely remain silent about the issue, leading employees to believe they’ll be penalized in some shape or form for taking time off. A 2016 Expedia study found almost 30 percent of Americans said they usually go one year or more between vacations.
Many managers don’t consider the drawbacks that come with non-stop work, but there are numerous advantages to employees taking vacations. Are your employees taking vacation time? If so, that’s great. If not, you might want to reconsider and encourage your staff to use their PTO. Here’s are four reasons why:
1. Lower Productivity and More Burnout
Employers who breathe a sigh of relief with each vacation day that goes unused think they’re getting more bang for their buck in terms of productivity. If you have this mindset, think again.
People tend to rejuvenate after taking real vacation time (translate: not spending their time in a tropical destination at a hotel pool working on a laptop or connected to their mobile). After all, everyone’s brain needs a rest from the daily grind. In one study, 77 percent of human resources managers said employees who used all or most of their vacation days were more productive than those employees who did not.
Employees who take genuine and quality vacations typically return recharged with a clearer head. This equates to better performance, more energy, and higher levels of creativity, all of which lead to innovative ideas to benefit the company. On the other hand, their counterparts not taking vacation time increase their chances of burnout. This means more carelessness, higher percentages of errors, declined quality of work, and an overall lower level of productivity as they zombie their way through each workday.
2. Risks of Increased Health Issues
Employees who neglect or are pressured into not taking their vacation time fall into a higher risk category for health issues. Experts say prolonged stress and/or burnout leads to chronic health issues because ongoing strain takes its toll on a body’s ability to resist illness. This means non-vacationing employees are probably taking more sick time. Time taken that’s not relaxing, it’s spent in bed, at the doctor’s office, or in severe cases, hospitalized.
Plus, these unplanned sick days have a negative ripple effect in the workplace. Research suggests absenteeism costs U.S. companies billions each year, with the expenses being associated with interrupted workflows, lost productivity, lowered quality, and excess management time. And, even if they’re continuing to work while sick, these employees are likely to be more focused on not feeling well instead of on the tasks at hand, affecting their quality of work.
3. Better Work-Life Balance
People living a healthy balance between their professional and personal lives tend to be happier at home and on the job, leading to an overall win-win since one tends to impact the other.
After a relaxing vacation, workers are more likely to return to work ready to hit the ground running with a renewed sense of commitment. This is a far cry from the employees who drag themselves out of bed each morning and simply go through the motions until quitting time arrives. Worse, they might be so exhausted they make irrational or bad decisions that can lead to dangerous situations, depending upon the industry.
4. Increased Lump Sum Payouts
Consider how unused vacation time can be a giant liability on a balance sheet. In some states, employers are required to cash out at year’s end to employees who have not used their vacation time. If your organization has a high percentage of staff members who are not taking their time, this means big payouts come at the end of the year. Or, alternatively, employers may expect to pay even larger sums of cash out for unused vacation time when employees eventually quit or retire.
What Kind of Vacation Time Should People Get?
In the U.S., how vacation days are given largely varies. Some employers give a flat number of days to everyone and others base days on years of service or what an employee has negotiated upon hire. Then, there are companies who give unlimited vacation time.
In theory, unlimited vacation time sounds great but the unspoken truth is it’s not working. In reality, people are not using their vacation time, limited or unlimited. This indicates it’s not the structure of vacation days that matters, but the type of culture an organization has established when it comes to taking time off.
Employers are Largely Influential
For things to change, it’s up to U.S. managers and supervisors to lead the charge. In 2016, Project Time Off stated the boss is the “most powerful influencer” when it came to vacation time and there is a “high price” for silence on the issue. Eighty percent of people surveyed said they would actually take their time if they felt supported and encouraged by management. Silence is perceived by employees as vacations being frowned upon. To correct this perception, employers have to establish an organizational culture that appreciates the value of vacation time and actively encourage people to use it.
Ultimately, employees will feel respected by employers who want them to take vacations, enjoy their families, and lead a healthy work-life balance. Those who feel appreciated and valued want to give back to their employers. Meaning, they’ll not only be more motivated and productive, but probably not misuse their PTO benefits. They’re also more likely to be willing to work longer hours when necessitated.
There is some good news here. Updated research led by Project Time Off found the tide is starting to turn. In 2016, average vacation use by American workers climbed to 16.8 days, up from 2015’s 16.2 days. While there is still a long way to go, this is the biggest bump since 2000 when using vacation time began to rapidly decline. (Earlier statistics showed from 1976 to 2000, U.S. workers took an average of 20.3 days off per year).
There is some evidence to suggest mandatory vacations are the answer. However, employers may not have to go this far. By simply encouraging people to use their time to unwind and get away from it all, they’ll rejuvenate and come back full of ideas and energy. The bottom line: if supervisors promote employees taking their vacations, everybody wins.