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Build Your Career Work-Life Balance

Take a Break! Most Workers Aren't Using All Their Time Off

Take a Break! Most Workers Aren't Using All Their Time Off
Credit: Photobyphotoboy/Shutterstock

With the unofficial start to summer upon us, vacation is on the agenda for many employees. However, new research finds that they won't be taking as much time off as they could.

A study from the online job site Glassdoor revealed that the average U.S. employee who receives vacation time has only taken about half (54 percent) of his or her eligible paid time off in the past year. More than 20 percent of those surveyed have taken less than one-quarter of their eligible vacation time.

Just 23 percent of employees took 100 percent of their earned time off over the past year.

The silver lining is that, overall, employees took slightly more time off last year than they did in 2015. A separate study from Project: Time Off found that U.S. workers took an average of 16.8 days of vacation in 2016, up from 16.2 days the previous year. 

Katie Denis, Project: Time Off's senior director and the report's author, said the increase in the amount of time employees took off over the past year is reason for optimism that workers' bad vacation habits could be improving.

"Our workforce still has a long way to go to rewire its thinking that hours worked and busyness are equivalent to productivity," Denis said in a statement. "But make no mistake, the increase in vacation usage is a positive indicator for American work culture."

The Project: Time Off study, which surveyed 7,331 U.S. employees who earn time off, shows that U.S. employees left 662 million vacation days on the table last year, four million more than in 2015. However, some of the days can be rolled over to the following year. The research found that of the total number of unused days off, 206 million were forfeited because they could not be rolled over, banked or paid out. [Going on vacation? Here is how to make the most of it]

Those forfeited days translate to $66.4 billion in lost benefits, an average of $604 per U.S. employee.

One problem employees have when taking vacations is that they have a hard time truly breaking away. The Glassdoor research, which surveyed 2,224 U.S. adults, found that just 54 percent of employees said they completely "check out" while on vacation, down from 63 percent in 2014.

Nearly 30 percent of the employees surveyed are expected to stay aware of work issues and jump in if things need their attention while they are away, up from 20 percent in 2014. The study also found that 12 percent of workers are expected to be reachable, deliver work or participate in conference calls while on vacation.

"We are seeing a push and pull situation when it comes to employees taking vacation and paid time off, in which people attempt to step away from the office for a break from work, but technology is keeping them connected with the swipe of a finger," said Carmel Galvin, Glassdoor's chief human resources officer, in a statement.

A recent report from the staffing firm Accountemps discovered that 54 percent of workers said they typically check in with the office at least once or twice a week during their vacation, up from 41 percent a year ago.

More than half of those surveyed said they check in while on vacation to gain peace of mind that things were under control and that projects were moving forward.

Additionally, 47 percent said they wanted to avoid coming back to extra work and 34 percent wanted to prevent colleagues from feeling undue stress.

"The reality is, many professionals, either by necessity or choice, will check in with the office to ensure things are under control and projects are moving forward in their absence," said Michael Steinitz, executive director for Accountemps.

"Employees who feel the need to connect with work should set clear boundaries to minimize the time they spend attending to office duties."

Researchers at Project: Time Off believe there needs to be a change in how workers view time off. While many employees think the best way to move up the corporate ladder is to sacrifice vacation and embrace "work martyrdom," the research paints a different picture.

Nearly 40 percent of the employees surveyed want to be seen as a work martyr by their boss; however, these workers are less likely to have received a raise or bonus and were no more likely to have received a promotion in the last year than the average worker.

"We need to put to rest the fallacy that 'work ethic' is equivalent to work martyrdom," said Cait DeBaun, Project: Time Off's director of communications. "Not only are employees not getting ahead by sacrificing time off, these habits may also be harming their careers."

Accountemps' Steinitz said employees are best surveyed by taking their allotted vacation time and using those days off to their fullest potential by unplugging from the office.

"This helps you come back to work recharged and with [a] fresh perspective," Steinitz said. "Employees who feel the need to connect with work should set clear boundaries to minimize the time they spend attending to office duties."

In order to feel more comfortable about taking vacation time, Accountemps offers several tips:

  1. Schedule days off in advance. Make sure your boss and co-workers know about your vacation plans in advance. This will give them time to come up with a plan for how to cover your work while you're gone.
  2. Know who's taking over. Managers, colleagues and other contacts should be alerted to who is taking the lead on any major assignments while you're gone. This will ensure that others know who to turn to if they have a question and that these projects are moving forward in your absence. This also gives a chance for managers to evaluate whether those who take the lead are ready for more responsibility.
  3. Disconnect from the office. While it might be difficult, try to avoid constantly checking email and voicemail while you are gone. The more you can unplug, the more benefit you'll get from your vacation. If checking in is a must, set aside a short window of time each day to do so.
  4. Don't worry. The less you worry about things while you are gone, the better you will feel when you return. Your vacation time is something you've earned, so don't feel guilty about using it.
  5. Find out what you missed. When you return from vacation, make sure you schedule time to meet with your boss to find out what happened while you were gone. In addition, be sure to block off some time to return calls and emails.

The Accountemps study was based on surveys of 1,000 U.S. workers 18 years or older and employed in offices.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.