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Build Your Career Work-Life Balance

Who's to Blame for Workers Avoiding Vacation?

Who's to Blame for Workers Avoiding Vacation?
Credit: Epic Stock Media/Shutterstock

Do your employees feel like they can't take a day off? As their manager, you might be to blame, new research finds.

A study from Project: Time Off found that while managers said they are supportive of employees taking time off, these bosses' behavior says otherwise. Despite the vast majority of managers saying they actively encourage time off, 43 percent talk to their staff about taking vacation time only once a year or less.

In addition, many bosses fail to set a good example with their own time off. Although 93 percent of managers said time off is important for their employees, nearly 60 percent of bosses left vacation days on the table last year.

Katie Denis, the study's author and Project: Time Off's senior director, said that managers' perspective on vacation time is a study in contradictions.

"While managers are incredibly supportive of taking vacation, they are out of touch with employee attitudes concerning time off and how loudly their actions communicate a much different message to workers," Denis wrote in the study.

The research also revealed that although 55 percent of managers feel supported in taking time off, just 39 percent of employees feel the same. [See Related Story: Want Employees to Take a Vacation? Set a Good Example ]

"[Managers] feel much greater support for taking their time off," Denis wrote. "That leaves more than six in 10 nonmanager employees feeling that management is either ambivalent or disapproves of time off."

Overall, the research found that in 2015, American workers had 658 million unused vacation days, which translates into $272 billion in accumulated vacation time on the balance sheets of U.S. businesses over the year.

"This is a $272 billion wake-up call for America's business leaders that they cannot afford to ignore vacation," Denis said in a statement. "Beyond the red mark on balance sheets, not taking time off hurts employee engagement and productivity, affects talent retention, and expedites burnout — all of which hurt a company's bottom line."

Senior managers, as opposed C-suite executives and nonmanagers, feel the greatest burden when taking vacation time, the study found. (Senior leaders are those who are involved in decision-making and have titles comparable to senior vice president, vice president, director or managing director.) The study showed that 55 percent of these senior leaders said their fear of returning to a mountain of work is their biggest reason for not taking time off. That's compared to just 33 percent of nonmanagers and 26 percent of executives who said they feel the same.

In addition, 52 percent of senior leaders said they worry that no one else can do their work if they take time off, compared to 27 percent of nonmanagers and 34 percent of executives.

Denis said managers should think twice about the message they are sending if they believe no one else can do their work.

"They may be missing out on opportunities to develop the talent they manage — something that reflects well on them," she wrote. "They should consider it a major trouble spot if, in fact, no one else can step in while an employee is away."

The researchers studied companies that place a priority on making sure all their workers take enough time off, finding that using vacation time increases energy, reduces burnout, boosts creativity, improves talent development, and helps with retaining and attracting top employees.

Denis said vacation has the power to give American companies a competitive advantage, but only if they use it.

"Managers from the C-suite down need to shake free of guilt and perception issues and embrace the potential [that] time off holds for themselves and their employees," Denis wrote in the study. "Ignoring vacation is a choice — a choice to fall behind companies that are maximizing its potential to grow their bottom line." 

The study was based on surveys of 5,641 American employees who work more than 35 hours a week and receive paid time off from their employers. The researchers also reviewed Form 10-K financial statements, an annual report on company performance, by Oxford Economics.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance 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.