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Fear of Being Fired Kills the American Vacation

Chad Brooks
Chad Brooks

Some people don't use their vacation days because they believe their job security depends on it.

  • Both now and in the early 2010s, survey data showed that employees are hesitant about taking a vacation.
  • Employees not taking vacations can have all kinds of HR consequences and lead to employee burnout.
  • You can take concrete steps to encourage your team members to take time off, which is part of their compensation package.
  • This article is for employers looking to avoid HR issues and employees looking to justify vacation time.

Americans aren't taking vacations – and it's not because they can't afford them. Instead, a steady stream of research over the past decade has revealed that Americans are afraid of taking a vacation from work for fear of appearing less than dedicated to their employer.

Whether it results in them not using vacation time or coming to the office when sick, research over the past decade has shown that U.S. employees are afraid to be out of the office. 

U.S. workers hesitant to take paid time off

In 2019, three separate surveys indicated that U.S. workers are hesitant to take their paid time off (PTO). Priceline found that more than half of U.S. employees had seven unused paid days off leading up to the holiday season. It also discovered that 1 in 3 employees typically end their years with half their vacation days unused.

Similarly, Glassdoor found that the average U.S. employee takes only 54% of their available time off. It also discovered that only 23% of U.S. employees use all their vacation time, with 9% not taking a vacation whatsoever. 

The total number of unused vacation days that year was 768 million, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That figure represented a 10% increase from the prior year.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway: Employee reticence to take a vacation has increased over the past decade.

Previous research on taking a vacation

The phenomenon of U.S. workers' hesitation to take their PTO is nothing new. In a 2012 survey from workforce consulting firm Right Management, 70% of employees said they weren't using all their earned vacation days. Around the same time, research from JetBlue Airways discovered that most employees leave an average of 11 vacation days on the table, or 70% of their allotted time off.

Michael Haid, senior vice president of talent management at Right Management, said at the time that the prevailing environment at many organizations seems to recognize devotion to the job at the exclusion of nearly everything else.

"Whether this culture is real or imagined, employees everywhere are forsaking vacations and even family time for the primacy of work," Haid said.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway: Employees have long held on to a substantial number of their usable vacation days.

John de Graaf is the president of Take Back Your Time, an organization focused on challenging the epidemic of overwork, overscheduling, and time famine facing society. He said the contemporary recession has amplified employees' concerns that being out of the office will be seen as not giving it their all.

"You have this kind of fear of not wanting to be seen as a slacker," de Graaf told Business News Daily.

Even when they do take vacation, many employees aren't leaving their work behind. In a 2011 study from virtual office company Regus, 66% of surveyed employees said they would check and respond to work email during their time off, and 29% expected to attend meetings virtually while they were on vacation. 

HR consequences of employees not taking vacation

While some companies do encourage employees to use their earned time off, de Graaf said that some aren't worried about the potential repercussions of the nose-to-the-grindstone approach.

"They think, 'If I burn someone out, I can always find someone else,'" he said. "They think [employees] are expendable."

On its own, forgoing a few days off may not be significant, Haid said. But when so many people think they shouldn't take the time they're entitled to, problems arise.

Consequences could include unnecessary turnover, low employee retention, absenteeism, frequent health or safety claims, and a host of other HR issues. Outsourcing your human resources to one of our outsourced HR best picks can help you counter these issues. You can learn about one prominent example of HR outsourcing in our ADP review.

Why employees taking vacation is a good thing

Carrie Bulger, professor and chair of the psychology department at Quinnipiac University, agreed it is a mistake for businesses to think that employees skimping on their vacation time is a good thing. With rundown employees comes decreased productivity, she said, as well as increased healthcare costs for the company.

"When we are tired, we are not performing at our best," Bulger said. "Also, people tend to be more sick when they are exhausted."

A Concordia University study suggests insecurity could play a role in employees' determination to make it into the office. In the study, employees who admitted to being insecure in their jobs were more likely to attend work while sick – making them present in body but not in spirit, which is known as presenteeism.

Surveyed employees reported trekking into the office while sick three times over six months. For comparison, they called in sick and stayed home only about 1.5 days in that same time period.

Bulger said such presenteeism actually ends up costing companies more than absenteeism does. "It's about being at your max."

Promoting a culture of time off

To create a culture that promotes time off, Bulger said, company leaders must set the example.

"It isn't just about making sick and vacation time available; it's encouraging people to take vacations," she said. "Upper management needs to show that it needs to be done."

De Graaf sees no ultimate solution short of public policy. Having worked with legislators previously in an effort to enact some vacation standards, though, he is not optimistic anything will ever get done to free employees of their fear of taking time off.

"[The U.S.] is the only wealthy country in the world that does not guarantee any paid vacation time," de Graaf said. "Every other country understands that this makes people healthier and creates a better workforce."

How to approach taking a vacation

Both you and your team deserve a break – and the HR consequences of not taking a vacation show it. To encourage employees to actually take vacations, you should take these actions: 

  • Acknowledge your employees' need for vacation time.
  • Allow employees to carry over accrued vacation days from one year to the next.
  • Build a process through which team members can cover for employees taking time off.
  • Regularly remind employees of deadlines for holiday requests.
  • Show interest in your employees' vacation plans.
  • Clearly explain your time-off policies in your employee handbook.
  • Promote a healthy work-life balance as part of your company culture.
  • Lead by example and take vacations of your own.

That last step might be the most important. Small business owners like yourself can and should take vacations too. Sure, a vacation may seem out of reach when you theoretically need to be available at any time. But not taking a break now can lead to burnout later. And then, you truly can't be available. A little time off now can mean more time on later.

Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: BartekSzewczyk / Getty Images
Chad Brooks
Chad Brooks
Business News Daily Staff
Chad Brooks is a writer and editor with more than 20 years of media of experience. He has been with Business News Daily and for the past decade, having written and edited content focused specifically on small businesses and entrepreneurship. Chad spearheads coverage of small business communication services, including business phone systems, video conferencing services and conference call solutions. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post,,, Live Science, IT Tech News Daily, Tech News Daily, Security News Daily and Laptop Mag. Chad's first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014.