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Americans Skipping Out on PTO: The Financial and Emotional Tolls

By Townes Haas   |    January 8, 2015   |    11:03 AM

Why Are Americans Deciding Not to Take Paid Vacations and Time Off

Studies have repeatedly shown that taking time off from work is beneficial - not only to the employee, but also the business. When employees have time to recharge and relax, they come back to work more ready to handle the workload and the stresses of their job. Yet, a recent survey carried out by Harris Interactive, a research firm, for Glassdoor showed that employees only use about 51% of their eligible paid time off and vacation time. This despite the fact that they may actually “lose it if they don’t use it” – which in actual dollars is about $1,300.

This same survey also indicated that most Americans work even when they are on vacation: one in five have been contacted by a boss when they’re not supposed to be working.

Americans are known worldwide for being some of the hardest working people. Yet, is there more behind these statistics beyond just wanting to do a good job?

Why Americans Don’t Take PTO and Use Vacation Time

Depending on the company, most employees are entitled to 10 paid work days a year and 6 federal holidays. Americans, however, took less leave time in 2013 than they did in the previous four decades. This despite research showing that nearly 96% of participants surveyed as part of the GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications study for U.S. Travel Association recognized the importance of PTO – and this included 95% of senior business leaders. If Americans are entitled to and know the importance of time off, then why aren’t they taking it?

According to this same survey, employees themselves are the problems. Research showed that the justifications for not taking time off included:

  • They feared returning to a ton of work when they got back. While this prevented 40% of Americans of taking time off, this same fear also forces many who do take time off to work when they are on vacation.
  • Another issue is that they don’t think anyone else can handle their job – the Work Martyr Complex.
  • Others just want to show their employers that they are dedicated to their job and the company. And they think that this can be done by avoiding using their PTO.
  • Some people simply can’t afford to take time off. In fact, nearly 1/3 of respondents cited this as the case for not using their vacation or paid time off.
  • Others are afraid of being seen as slackers or replaceable if they take time off. This may seem like an extreme reaction, but there is anecdotal evidence that many Corporate America companies actually do take retribution on people who use their PTO and vacation time. These horror stories are enough to scare many Americans. Two-thirds of American workers actually said that their companies don’t mention PTO or send mixed signals about - or even discourage -it.
  • Americans don’t control their PTO; the company does. So they have to wait until their employer allows them to use it.
  • Senior businesses are not adequately communicating with employees about their PTO. Nearly a quarter of senior business leaders have trouble approving PTO requests, and a third either never or rarely speak to employees about the benefits of taking time off – another deterrent for employees. Further, the business leaders themselves are sending mixed messages: Many still respond to emails, take calls and do work when they’re supposed to be away.

Impacts of Not Taking Leave

While not taking a vacation or time off may make employees seem dedicated to upper management, it actually is making them on the whole less productive. Stressed out and overwhelmed employees don’t get as much done as their well-rested counterparts. Research has shown that the performance of employees who take time off improves by 80% and that reaction times of those returning from vacation increases by 40%.

To encourage employees to start taking more time off, some companies are changing the vacation/PTO policies. For example, Netflix has completely done away with the current policy. Employees are allowed to take time off when they need it. Whether this alternative form of PTO/vacation time works is yet to be seen.

There is still debate whether this system will work any better. If employees still perceive that taking time off could be a detriment to their career, they may still refrain from getting away from work.

While Americans are entitled to time off, it may take a complete culture shift for these same people to feel comfortable requesting for and using their paid vacations and PTO.