Why Americans Feel Guilty About Using Vacation Benefits

How to Get More US Employees to Partake in Vacation Benefits

••• Depositphotos.com/AnnaOmelchenko

As a general rule, Americans are hard working and innovative. This enthusiasm is what initially built our nation and what continues to sustain it today, even amidst social and political turmoil. However, working too much can be a bad thing. That is, according to recent surveys that point out Americans are leaving far too many vacation days on the table each year.

Project Time Off, an organization that tracks the use of vacation benefits and advocates for greater work-life balance, advised in The State of American Vacation 2017 report that 54 percent of Americans had unused vacation benefits at the end of 2016. That amounts to 662 million hours of unused vacation time that could otherwise have helped workers to recuperate and recharge from work. To put this into perspective, the study found that in the 1970s, the average vacation time used by working adults was 20 days.

Why Americans Are Not Using Their Allotted Vacation Benefits

Some of this comes down to how vacation time is viewed and promoted by employers. In the US, paid vacation is not mandatory. The US Department of Labor advises that one in four Americans do not receive any paid time off, which is the only wealthy nation that doesn’t require employers to provide vacation benefits. Of those employers that do provide paid vacation and sick time, this is not promoted or encouraged. 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.

Another factor is that more people are working remotely than ever before, thanks to mobile technology and the Internet. Even when working people take time off from the office, they 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 do work while they are on vacation.

The rest of this originates with cultural norms that make it OK to work long hours with little time off. The image of a workaholic surviving on large amounts of coffee and sugar-laden pastries is all too popular on television. 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”, people are made to feel bad when they take time away from the stressors of work.

Interestingly, as Forbes-contributor Niall McCarthy points out, nations like Australia, the UK and Germany offer 20 or more vacation days per year to employees. In countries where the value of work is placed higher than that of personal time, like Japan for example, vacation time amounts to no more than 5-10 days.                                                                                                                        

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a special report 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 USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand, all of which are considered to lead the rest of the world in workplace policies. Interestingly enough, the study found:

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

Benefits of Taking Regular Vacations

As a result of this study and others, there is an increased interest in making workplaces more productive by providing much needed time off to workers. 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.
  • When people travel on their vacations, they begin to see the world and diversity in a new light.

Removing the Guilt of Vacation Benefits

It’s very important for upper management to support healthier and happier workplaces by promoting vacation benefits.

Offering Alternatives

If the workplace does not offer vacation benefits, there are alternatives such as flexible work hours, unpaid personal time off, and daily nap and meal breaks that allow employees to recharge. As a rule, however, all employees should be offered at least 5-10 paid vacation days per year in their first year, based on their status and work hours. Part time employees can earn paid time off along the way, but should be offered a limited amount of vacation days from the start of employment too.

Communicating Year-round 

Paid time off should be something that is encouraged throughout the year, to maintain adequate staffing levels and remove shame or guilt. While many employees will want to save up some of their vacation time for extended days and travel time, managers need to be sure that they are using time off when they are sick, overworked, experiencing stress, or having a reduction in focus.

Setting a Positive Example

Company leadership can also 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 of these factors can influence others to do the same. Managers should make this a positive aspect of work and never load employees down with burdensome tasks while they are away. Managers can check in with their teams while on vacation, but limit it to a brief phone call once a day.

These behaviors give others a model from which to conduct themselves when they are on vacation.

Vacation Benefits for Low Wage Earners

Low wage and minimum wage earners need to be sure to use any and all paid vacation days they are entitled to each year. If they don't, they are essentially giving away earnings. During their time off, they can focus on personal matters that include making a plan to earn more in the coming year. Educational benefits can help low wage earners to learn a trade or a college degree while they are employed, and paid time off is a critical aspect of this when they need to study for exams or travel for classes.