Why Do Americans Feel Guilty About Using Vacation Benefits?

Parents and two children walking hand-in-hand on a pier

Most Americans are hard working. This enthusiasm initially built our nation and it continues to sustain us today, even amid social and political turmoil. But working too much can be a bad thing. Surveys have found that Americans are leaving far too many vacation days on the table each year.

The U.S. Travel Association reports in its Time Off and Vacation Usage Report that 54% of Americans had unused vacation benefits in 2017. This amounted to 705 million days of unused vacation time that could otherwise have helped workers recuperate and recharge from work.

Statistics on Paid Time Off

The gap between vacation time available and vacation time used is at least partially due to how vacation time is viewed and promoted by employers. Paid vacation isn't mandatory in the U.S. In fact, it's the only wealthy nation that doesn’t require employers to provide vacation benefits.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 24% of private industry employees did not receive any paid time off in 2017. But most workers are offered anywhere from a week to two weeks vacation time, and vacation benefits are often accrued based only on actual hours worked.

Remote and Telecommuting Employees

Another factor is that more people are working remotely than ever before thanks to mobile technology and the internet. Even when employees people take time off from the workplace, they often find themselves engaged in work-related tasks like checking emails, taking phone meetings, and conducting research from smartphones.

A Glassdoor survey found that two out of three employees work while they are on vacation.

Cultural Norms

It's considered perfectly OK to work long hours with little time off in the U.S. The image of a workaholic surviving on large amounts of coffee and sugar-laden pastries is all too popular. Worse yet are the attitudes of co-workers who are left behind to work on projects while others take a day or two off, often referred to as “vacation shaming." Workers are made to feel bad when they take time away from the stressors of work.

Nations like Australia, the U.K., and Germany offer 20 or more vacation days per year to employees. But vacation time amounts to no more than five to 10 days in countries where the value of work is placed higher than that of personal time, such as Japan.             

Rates Among the World's Wealthiest Nations

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a special report in 2013 that compared international laws surrounding paid time-off benefits and usage rates in the world’s richest nations. Members of the CEPR include 16 European countries, as well as the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand. All these nations are considered to lead the rest of the world in workplace policies.

The study found that:

  • There are currently no universal laws requiring employers to provide paid vacations.
  • Most companies in the private sector offer 16 or fewer paid days off annually.
  • Low-wage, part-time, and small business employees are less likely to be offered paid vacation time.
  • Ninety percent of high-wage workers receive paid vacation benefits versus 49% of low-wage workers.

The Benefits of Taking Regular Vacations

The benefits of paid vacation time are many, as backed by science:

  • Vacation time offers a chance to recover and recoup from physical and mental exhaustion.
  • Taking time off allows for renewed relationships with friends and family members.
  • Paid vacation gives employees worry-free time to focus on personal needs.
  • Work/life balance and stress reduction are immediate benefits of vacation time.
  • Improved sleep and productivity are cited as the top benefits of vacation.
  • People begin to see the world and diversity in a new light when they travel on vacations.

Offering Alternatives

Alternatives such as flexible work hours, unpaid personal time off, and daily nap and meal breaks allow employees to recharge when a workplace doesn't offer vacation benefits. As a rule, however, all employees should be offered at least five to 10 paid vacation days in their first year, based on their status and work hours.

Part-time employees can earn paid time off along the way, but they should be offered a limited number of vacation days from the start of employment as well.

Employees May Need Encouragement

Paid time off should be something that's encouraged throughout the year to maintain adequate staffing levels and remove the shame or guilt that's often associated with taking a break. Although many employees want to save up their vacation time for extended days and travel time, managers should ensure that they're using time off when they're sick as well, or when they're overworked, experiencing stress, or demonstrating a reduction in focus.

Setting a Positive Example

Company leaders can set a good example for employees by also taking time off for vacation. Talking about the benefits of vacation time, how it helps people to stay productive and happy, and the health benefits of vacation time—all these factors can influence others to do the same.

Managers should make this a positive aspect of work and never load employees with burdensome tasks to compensate for their own absences while they're off. Supervisors can check in with their teams while on vacation, but limit it to a brief phone call once a day at most. These behaviors can give others a model they can use themselves when they're on vacation.

Vacation Benefits for Low Wage Earners

Low-wage and minimum-wage earners should be sure to use any and all paid vacation days they're entitled to each year. They're effectively giving away earnings otherwise.

Employees can focus on personal matters during their time off that might include making plans to earn more in the coming year. Educational benefits can help low-wage earners learn a trade or earn a college degree while they're employed, and paid time off is a critical aspect when they need time to study for exams.