Americans aren't taking vacations. And, it's not because they can't afford them. Instead, a steady stream of research over the past year revealed that Americans are afraid to take time off from work for fear of appearing less than dedicated to their employer.
Whether it's not using provided vacation time or coming to the office when sick, research over the past year has shown that U.S. employees are afraid to be out of the office.
In a recent survey from workforce consulting firm Right Management, 70 percent of employees said they weren't using all their earned vacation days in 2011. In addition, research from Jet Blue Airways discovered most employees leave an average of 11 vacation days on the table, or 70 percent of their total allotted time off.
Right Management senior vice president Michael Haid said the perceived environment that now prevails at many organizations seems to recognize devotion to the job to 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.
John de Graaf, executive director of Take Back Your Time, an organization focused on challenging the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine facing society, said the recent recession has only amplified employees' concern 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 BusinessNewsDaily.
While some companies are good about encouraging employees to use earned time off, de Graaf said there also are some that aren't worried about the potential repercussions that may come from that nose-to-the-grindstone approach.
"They think, 'If I burn someone out, I can always find someone else,'" de Graaf said. "They think [employees] are expendable."
On its own, foregoing 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.
Carrie Bulger, professor and chair of the psychology department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, 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, as well as increased health-care costs for the company, she said.
"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.
That research shows 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.
Surveyed employees reported trekking into the office while sick three times over six months; by comparison, they called in sick and stayed home only about one-and-a-half 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," Bulger said.
Even when they do take vacation, research shows many employees aren't leaving their work behind. In a study from Regus, a virtual office company, in 2011, 66 percent of surveyed employees said they would check and respond to email during their time off, and 29 percent expect to attend meetings virtually while on vacation.
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," Bulger said. "Upper management needs to show that it needs to be done."
De Graaf sees no ultimate solution short of public policy.
But having worked with legislators previously in an effort to get some vacation standards enacted, he is not optimistic anything will ever get done to free employees of their fear of taking time off.
"This 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."