Only 28% of Americans plan to use all of their allocated vacation time in 2019. And this trend seems to be getting worse, as this article from 2016 points out, with 46% of workers using all of their vacation time in 2016, down from 58% in 2013. That’s insane. Vacation time is literally a built-in benefit that you’re paid for. Why American’s wouldn’t take advantage of this time offered by companies baffles me as vacation time is necessary to reboot, re-energize, and enjoy life. But here we are — Americans don’t take vacation.
Many articles address why Americans don’t use all of their vacation time each year. Among the reasons:
- According to this survey, 54% of workers cited ‘Guilt’ about taking vacation time.
- Preparing to take vacation is a lot of work and employees worry about their coverage leads dropping the ball.
- Vacation itself is stressful due to over-planning and the desire to fit in as much ‘fun’ as possible.
Furthermore, studies show that many Americans don’t even bother tuning out of work when they do take vacation time. According to the same survey cited above, 70.4% of workers said they continue to check-in on work during vacation.
This really needs to change for the benefit of workers and their companies, and while I don’t have a ‘cure-all’ solution that will magically help enable employees to feel more comfortable taking vacation, I have some ideas that should help reduce the stress of vacation and other time off concerns:
Unlimited PTO Should Become Standard
The company I previously worked for introduced an ‘unlimited PTO’ option back in 2016 and I immediately appreciated it. Unlimited is a misnomer, of course, as you can’t take six months off per year. The better definition of this policy is ‘flexible.’ You can take the time off that you need, within reason, and with approval from your manager.
I loved this policy because it removed the stress of counting days off and trying to figure out if I was leaving myself enough leeway to get through the end of the year.
It’s typical for employers to offer 10–15 days of total PTO, which in America often includes sick and personal days. Under this scenario employees suffer because they have to plan around all of their time off.
For example: An employee has scheduled a week-long summer vacation to the beach with their family for late August. They have 10 days of PTO for the year. Their spouse is out of town in February and one of their kids becomes sick, so they have to use a PTO day. Then, in April they get a stomach bug and have to miss two days because they are hugging a toilet. Suddenly they have just 2 days of PTO remaining for the rest of the year if they still want to take that vacation. They then have to begin weighing every potential PTO day. Is this migraine really that bad? Is my kid really too sick to go to daycare?
This is stressful and benefits no one. A modern workplace shouldn’t force it’s employees to monitor days off — they should treat employees like adults and trust that they will get their work done and take the time they need to look after their own welfare through sick days, personal days, and vacation days.
Employers must be vocal about the importance of vacation time for their employees
A big part of the reason why employees stress so much about PTO is because they believe their employer looks negatively on the employees use of vacation and sick time. There’s a strong belief in America that vacation time doesn’t align with hustle culture, and if you’re taking time off you aren’t contributing to the company.
I believe a huge contributing factor to this belief is that companies don’t reinforce the importance of vacation with their employees. The onboarding process doesn’t focus on mental and physical health and the benefits of PTO and why employees shouldn’t hesitate to use it.
This is reinforced by this quote from Katie Dennis, at Project: Time Off, per a Forbes article on the subject of American vacation time:
“Two-thirds of employees say they hear very little about vacation time from their companies. That silence creates a vacuum, and we fill that vacuum with our anxieties and assumptions about what our bosses and colleagues could think about our vacation time. If the lines of communication were opened, employees might be surprised to learn that the clear majority of bosses agree that vacation improves an employee’s focus (78%) and alleviates burnout (81%).”
Employers should take time to reinforce with their employees that PTO is an important part of the successful workplace. Employee handbooks should stress that employee wellbeing is first and foremost of importance because, after all, unhappy, tired, sick employees who are burnt out don’t perform well. It’s not just to the employees benefit, it’s to the company’s benefit as well. A point should be made to continuously encourage employees to take the time they need, even if they are working with a limited PTO schedule.
A distinction should be made between PTO and sick/personal days
In recent years there has been a trend at American companies to eliminate sick days and bundle all time off into a single PTO pool, with a CBS report citing 51% of private American companies now taking this approach.
One of the great frustrations I’ve had in the past when working with the scope of limited PTO is that my employers have bundled vacation and sick/personal days. I’m a firm believer that sick days shouldn’t be limited. After all, if you’re sick, you’re sick. You can’t function properly as an employee and you risk getting others sick if you come in.
When employees have to parse out their days off between sick days and vacation they are often going to sacrifice sick days for vacation days. They will come in even if they aren’t feeling well because they would rather use the PTO day for a long weekend or a family ski trip.
Creating an unlimited sick pool will free employees to use their PTO for invigorating, refreshing vacation time while encouraging them to take care of their personal health via sick days.
No Check-In Policy
Companies should adopt a ‘No Check-In’ policy where their employees are informed, upon hire, and reminded ahead of vacation, that they do not want to be heard from when on vacation.
Since concern about coverage and projects is a major prohibitive factor in Americans inability to take vacation and destress, it’s important for employers to remind them that their job will still be there when they return and that their projects are in good hands while they are out of office.
Adopting a ‘No Check-In’ policy formally will help ensure that employees feel comfortable ditching email while they’re sitting beachside.
Americans have to adjust their attitudes toward vacation, and that begins with employers creating better vacation and sick policies, and being more vocal about the importance of using this time to refresh. We hesitate to use vacation because we are afraid of consequences, feel guilty about leaving our work behind, and fear that things will fall apart when we’re on a beach somewhere. We come in when we’re sick because we don’t want to waste vacation days, and then we wonder why we’re all so burnt out.
My hope is that employers will begin adopting more employee-friendly vacation and time off policies in the future, but for now I highly recommend finding an employer that already has such policies in place in order to maintain your health and sanity.