Buck Bond Group

Working toward burnout — the toll of unused vacation time

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Summer is here — and so are thoughts of an idyllic vacation. But how many American workers are actually taking a vacation this summer? According to a new study, the number of vacation days taken has ticked up slightly since 2015, from 16.2 to 16.8 days per year, but that’s still nearly a week less than Americans took annually during the period 1976-2000. In fact, employees are foregoing their earned vacation days even when the unused time won’t roll over to the following year, and those who do go on vacation report being unable to disconnect from work, thanks to advances in technology. With nearly one-third of employees reporting high levels of stress at work, failure to take vacation time could contribute to job dissatisfaction, lower productivity and even burnout.

Teresa Wilkins, Conduent HR Services Director, Knowledge Resource Center.

The reasons most often given for not taking vacation include worries about work piling up, feeling guilty and a workplace culture that discourages time off. Those who do take vacation time find themselves checking email or answering phone calls — with some reporting expectations that they are reachable and available to work while away. However, demographic and hierarchical disparities illustrate that these experiences are not the same across the board. More men than women are taking advantage of vacation time, with Millennial women taking the least time off. And while senior managers are more likely to describe a workplace culture supportive of taking vacation time, it’s non-managers who find it easier to disengage. Ironically, for all the fear that taking a vacation will affect one’s success at work (dubbed the “workplace martyr” syndrome), the same study found that people who took no vacations were actually less likely to receive bonuses, raises or promotions than those who took all their allotted vacation days.

Suggestions for improvement start at the top, with managers modeling good vacation behavior by taking time off themselves and encouraging employees to plan and make use of their earned vacation time. Bringing in temporary workers is one way to reduce stress about workloads piling up, and some employers are turning to more creative ways to get people to take vacation time: one company holds a drawing where employees can win $1,000 and a week off on short notice. Finally, for those who remain in the office, summer perks like a more casual dress code or leaving early on Fridays are another way to boost morale. These once traditional perks have dropped off in the past five years but now seem to be making a comeback, with more than 40% of employers planning to offer “Summer Fridays” in 2017.

While the U.S. lags behind other industrialized nations in prioritizing vacation time — in some European countries it’s considered a matter of public policy — a tighter labor market has boosted employee confidence and made it more important than ever for employers to consider the benefits of taking time off. The recent progress is encouraging, and this year may prove to herald the return of the traditional American summer vacation.