6 Reasons Your Workforce Isn't Using Vacation Days (and How to Get Them to Start)

vacation days
Employees need time off. And unfortunately, they're not taking it.

Despite the fact that people are working more than ever, they waste a whopping 169 million vacation days each year. And it's contributing to employee stress, burnout, and lower productivity.

What's Going On?

According to the U.S. Travel Association's State of American Vacation, vacation usage has declined even while the number of days has gone up. In 2015, U.S. workers earned an average of 21.9 annual vacation days, but left over half of them unused.

And it comes at a price. Research shows that men who didn't take a vacation for several years were 30% more likely to have heart attacks. Equally concerning, without time off, bodies have a harder time recovering from stress. What gives?

What's An Employer to Do?

Employers are realizing there's a problem. Some have even introduced unlimited vacation, but to no avail. Determined to get employees to take a break (a real one), one company in Germany dangled an auto-delete system for emails that come into an employee's inbox while their out-of-office response is active. The system deletes the email, notifying the sender to resend when the employee is back. It Might seem radical -- but it's working.

The bigger question is, why are vacation days getting left behind? And more important, what can employers do about it?

The Boss is Setting the Wrong Example

Many companies have great vacation policies. But if managers are reluctant to use their time off, employees can feel vacation is frowned upon.

Solution: Encourage vacation usage from the top down. Time-off taken by leadership and managers will communicate permission for vacation throughout the company.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

In busy work environments, people can feel their work will suffer if they're away. Instead of missing a day or more at the office, they "churn and burn" to make sure their assignments are fulfilled.

Solution: Create a chain of command for coverage. When employees know exactly who will cover what, they'll feel more confident about leaving.

Fear of Falling Behind 

It's hardly a vacation if you're worried about the mountain of work that will be waiting for you on your desk when you return.

Solution: Set specific expectations about timelines and goals. When people have deadlines, they'll know exactly what needs to be accomplished before they leave, and confident they're not leaving anyone hanging while they're gone.

Fear of the Un-Vacation

Employees who work on their days off are less inclined to schedule vacation days in the first place. More than a third of Millennials reported they worked every day of their vacations and felt less productive when they returned to the office; 61% admit they check work email on their days off.

Solution: Encourage employees to "check out" while they're away from the office. Better yet, make it possible; don't email unless there's an emergency.

Post-Vacation Frenzy 

The end-of-vacation crunch can take the joy out of both ends, leading people to wonder why they bothered.

Solution: Encourage a buffer zone. A day worked at home before returning to full duty can allow time to catch up on email, and provide an overall softer re-entry.

Getting Employees to Go Away

As the amount of vacation employees take continues to decline, the importance of taking it is on the rise. Encouraging employees to use their vacation time will require a clear-cut policy that the boss uses herself.

The result will may be some empty cubicles today...but more creative, productive, and less-stressed, more productive work in those cubicles when the occupants return.

Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
vacation days

Subscribe to the On the Horizon Newsletter