American workers took an average of 17.2 days of vacation in 2017, according to new research from Project: Time Off, jumping up nearly a half-day (.4 days) from 2016. This marks the highest level for American vacation usage since 2010 (17.5 days) and a more than full-day increase since bottoming out at 16 days in 2014. But there is still more room for improvement as many Americans (52%) left vacation time unused in 2017 (down from 54% in 2016). Further, nearly a quarter (24%) of Americans have not taken a vacation in more than a year.
The 52% of Americans who left vacation time on the table accumulated 705 million unused days last year, up from 662 million days the year before. The increase in unused days, despite Americans taking more vacation, is attributed to employees earning more time off (23.2 days in 2017, compared to 22.6 in 2016). America’s unused vacation time is a $255 billion missed economic opportunity that has the potential to create 1.9 million jobs.
Barriers to Vacation Time
While Americans rank cost (71%), children (45%), and pets (39%) as the top barriers to travel, these barriers have little impact on actual vacation usage. Respondents who agreed that cost was a top barrier take about the same amount of vacation time as average (53% leave time unused, compared to 52% overall). The same proves out with children (52% to 52%) and pets (54% to 52%).
In fact, it is work-related challenges that continue to have the most influence on Americans’ ability to vacation. Employees who were concerned that taking vacation would make them appear less dedicated or replaceable were dramatically less likely to use all their vacation time (61% leave time unused, compared to 52% overall). This held true for those who felt their workload was too heavy (57% to 52%) and no one else could do their job (56% to 52%).
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only country out of 21 wealthy countries that doesn’t require employers to offer paid vacation time. And when employees do use it, they tend to check emails and are not truly checking out. On top of that, workers typically have to work extra hard the week before going on vacation and then play another week of catch up when they return.
What if Vacation Time was Mandated?
This year’s Project: Time Off study found that some workplaces are starting to understand the benefits of a positive vacation culture. The percentage of workers who say their company’s culture encourages vacation jumped five points from 2016. The research found a major split when it came to the happiness of employees at companies with encouraging cultures versus their peers at firms that are discouraging or ambivalent to vacation (72% to 42%). These employees are also much happier with their job (68% to 42%) and how much vacation time they use (77% to 51%).
Recently two researchers collaborated to find out what would happen if organizations mandated vacation time. They looked at what would happen if employees were forced to take a scheduled week off every seven weeks. In the study, if employees contacted the office while on vacation, they would not be paid for the time off. After 12 weeks of the experiment managers were asked to rate productivity, creativity, and happiness levels before and after the mandatory time off.
Creativity rose 33%, happiness levels rose 25%, and productivity increased 13%. They also found that mandated vacations removed the guilt involved with not being at the office.
They did find two areas that needed improvement. The managers felt the frequency of once every seven weeks was too much. Instead they recommended every 12 weeks. After discussing with employees, they decided on every eight weeks. They also found that it is important to stagger team members so that their time off does not occur back to back.
In the end, employees and employers benefit from employees utilizing their vacation time. Employees should not feel guilty for taking time off and should be encouraged to do so.
Additional ASE Resources
2017/2018 Policies and Benefits Survey - This survey documents trends in policies and benefits for paid time off and other employment related benefits offered by Michigan employers. ASE members can access the data via their dashboard. Non-members can request the data from our Survey Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: hbr.org, projecttimeoff.com