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The Real Cost of Not Taking Time Off

Topics: Work Culture

Most of us are familiar with the psychological impact of stress, but it’s also important to understand some of the other costs of working too hard. Although we may intellectually appreciate the value of time off, that doesn’t mean we’re always as resolute when it comes to taking it.

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Image Credit: Zach Betten/Unsplash

Recently, the U.S. Travel Association’s Project: Time Off released a report examining how American workers use their vacation time. The report was based on data from an online survey (which was completed by more than 5,600 American workers over the age of 18 who work more than 35 hours per week) and from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here are a few of their key findings from The State of American Vacation 2016.

  1. Last year, 658 million vacation days went unused by American workers.

There is a culture of overwork in the U.S., and it’s having a major impact on work-life balance. Workers left 658 million vacation days on the table last year, forfeiting 222 million of them.

  1. Workers said they wanted to take the days.

Ninety-five percent of those surveyed said that using their vacation time was important to them. However, most took far fewer days away than they were given. Forty-one percent said they took 10-19 days off last year. Thirty-one percent said they took more, and 28 percent took less, with 5 percent reporting they took no time off at all last year. And, it’s not always a matter of having a skimpy paid-time-off policy: more than half, 55 percent, of workers left vacation days on the table last year.

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  1. Unused vacation days cost workers and the economy.

The bottom line is that workers pay a significant cost when they don’t use these days. The 222 million unused vacation days that can’t be rolled over or paid off are simply lost. On average, workers forfeited two full days each. According to this research, that comes out to $61.4 billion in forfeited benefits, just last year alone.

And, it’s not just workers who suffer. Project: Time Off estimates that those unused vacation days add up to $64.5 billion that never made it into the economy. (Because it’s hard to spend money when you’re in a meeting or processing reports.)

  1. Workers are skipping it for a reason.

Whenever intent lines up so poorly with outcomes, we have to wonder what’s really going on. Turns out, the American worker feels quite a bit of pressure to avoid taking time off. Thirty-seven percent said they feared returning to “a mountain of work,” which impacted their choice. The second most common challenge expressed by workers was that “no one else can do the job,” a concern shared by 30 percent of those surveyed. Twenty-eight percent reported feeling that it’s “harder as you grow in the company.” And, 22 percent said that they had unused vacation days last year because they wanted to show “complete dedication to the company and the job.”

  1. Managers are sending a message about taking time off.

Silence can sometimes speak louder than words. Sixty-five percent of Americans said that they hear nothing about taking time off, or that they get negative or mixed messages about doing so. Forty-six percent said they received no encouragement to take vacation last year at all. Additionally, 17 percent reported that they even feel pressure from their boss to check in with work while on vacation.

Taking time off is good for you. It’s also an important and valuable part of your compensation and benefits package. This report also found that folks were actually more likely to receive a promotion if they had taken 11 days off or more last year, compared with those who took 10 or fewer. However, it’s still more difficult than it should be to take that time, because our culture instills certain beliefs about the value of hard work.

“There is a norm toward being busy – and that busyness confers your value,” Erik Helzer, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, is quoted as saying in the report. “Your potential worth is somehow wrapped up in the perceived lack of time you have.”

For more information, see The State of American Vacation 2016.

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I’m strategic about my vacation days. I’ve only used 2 days of my sick days though. I never really know what is going to happen so I don’t use them willy nilly, but especially the job that I have I will be using my sick days for R & R. I usually like to use them should I actually get sick, but I’m a really healthy person, so I’ll use it for R & R.


PTO for exempt workers is somewhat of a farse in many/most organizations. I’m hard pressed to find an exempt person who doesn’t log at least as many extra hours as he/she earns in PTO. That is indeed a shame. I’m not saying that exempt employees should only be working 40hr weeks, but neither should the expectation be that they perpetually end up having to log 50-60 just to keep up. So the question is “Why?” The answer IMO revolves around… Read more »

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