A friend recently told me about an automatic email reply she had received from a colleague. It began innocuously enough—“I will be out of the office next Monday and Tuesday"—but it grew more alarming as it went on. “Because I have accumulated too many days of paid vacation," it said, "I have scheduled a trip to Chicago for the weekend in order to use some of them.” (I’ve changed some details here to protect identities.)
As an anecdote, this autoreply stands as a tidy illustration of one man’s work ethic. When stretched, it might color a picture of what the work culture at my friend’s company is like.
That’s why I was surprised to read a report this week that suggested that an indifference to—or perhaps even fear of—taking vacation isn't just limited to that one employee at that one company. According to the report, put out by the U.S. Travel Association, four in 10 American workers allow some of their paid vacation days to go unused and expire—even though 96 percent of workers claim to see the virtue in taking time off. Another report, from 2013, found that workers were letting an average of 3.2 vacation days expire, unused.
It should be noted that the U.S. Travel Association is an industry group, and as such, it has a vested interest in making sure people continue to take time off and travel around the country. In fact, “Vacation” conspicuously sits atop the report’s list of what workers tend to use paid leave for. For that reason, perhaps some of the report’s findings—that, for example, “two-thirds of workers are receiving negative, mixed, or no messages about taking PTO from their company”—should be taken with a grain of salt.
That aside (and really, how upset can one be that a group is trying to get workers to take advantage of perks that are owed to them?), the report jibes with the spate of overwork in many white-collar industries.
Paid-leave policies themselves dictate a good deal about whether workers will take time off. Five-sixths of workers who have policies in which vacation days disappear at year’s end used up all of their days, yet only about a quarter of workers reported having these policies. It appears that making these “use it or lose it” policies more common might be an easy way to get more people to take time off.
More likely, though, the true roots of the problem lie in a company’s culture. The report laments that roughly one-third of senior managers never or only once a year communicate the merits of taking paid vacation. But that seems an inadequate, or at least poorly framed, explanation. Many workers know about the benefits they're entitled to, and ultimately they're responsible for taking advantage of them. So if workers are reluctant to take time off, that probably has little to do with whether or not they're being regularly reminded of their own job's perks.
Instead, it probably has more to do with what employees perceive their bosses’ opinions of vacation to be—that’s why hearing them talk about its merits is important. Senior managers, the report finds, are more than three times as likely as other employees to respond to work emails while on vacation. When your boss is getting back to your email within minutes during her time off, what does that say to you about how you should treat vacation days?
While some degree of responsibility does lie with workers—it's up to them to draw work-life boundaries that preserve sanity—it’s probably the case that most are deterred by the possible repercussions of taking time off. One of the report’s most telling statistics is that 15 percent of senior managers said they view employees who take all of their vacation days as “less dedicated”—and that’s just the percentage who would admit it.