Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Why Are Americans So Afraid To Take Vacation?

Almost half of U.S. workers didn't take a single vacation day last year.

Imagine waking up early every morning, going to the office, working for eight-plus hours, and then commuting back home, only to repeat the process all over again the next day.

Trudging through the identical routine day in and day out, like a duller version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, with no variety to break up the monotony of daily life, is reality for many Americans. Last year, millions of U.S. workers—some 41 percent of the population—didn’t take a single vacation day. Almost one in four don’t receive any paid time off at all. And overall, Americans are taking less vacation time than at any point in the last four decades.  

These figures come from the results of a yearlong survey analyzing American travel habits, conducted by the travel site Skift. Using a sample of 1,500 adult American Internet users, Skift came up with a wealth of disheartening data. In 2014, Americans left 169 million paid vacation days untaken, effectively surrendering $52.4 billion in benefits. According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, a non-profit think tank, most Americans receive 10 paid vacation days in addition to the six federal holidays. Yet across the socioeconomic spectrum, millions of people, from white-collar office workers to low-wage retail employees, are neglecting to take advantage of this paid time off.

Why are we essentially agreeing to work for free? In brief, the answer is economic insecurity. Workers fear that taking time away from their jobs makes them appear less dedicated than their coworkers, and therefore more likely to be let go in the case of company-wide layoffs. They work long hours and forgo holidays in order to keep themselves in the running for promotions and bonuses. Twenty-eight percent of workers surveyed in a recent Oxford Economics study, commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, declined vacation days as a means of proving their devotion to their jobs. Another 40 percent did so because they feared the pileup of work they would be faced with upon their return. For those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, the reasoning was even more stark: they simply couldn’t afford to forfeit paychecks for holiday time, let alone front the cost of a trip.  

The national effects of these shifting vacation patterns are significant—and troubling. One result is major economic losses for the travel industry and all of its component parts: hotels, restaurants, venues, transportation companies—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who work in these industries. Many of them are the same low-wage workers who are too pressed for cash to go on vacations themselves. The U.S. Travel Association and other industry groups have drawn attention to this fact, pointing out that if Americans returned to their “pre-2000 vacation patterns” (meaning 20.3 days per year on average), it would have a “$284 billion impact across the entire U.S. economy.”

Though the desire to save money is understandable, employees who decline to take vacation days aren’t doing themselves any favors. The Oxford Economics report found that spending more time at work did not correlate with raises or bonuses. Employees who forwent vacation days have higher levels of stress, and Businessweek reported that vacation deprivation increases mistakes and resentment of co-workers.

So you may as well take advantage of those free days you’ve been stockpiling. Being away from the office may not help you, but spending too much time at work can definitely hurt you. 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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