Focus, Human Resources, and Travel & Tourism

Vacation time is important, but workers aren't taking it

Supporting down time benefits a company's bottom line.

November 14, 2014
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Company culture is often cited as a reason employees are reluctant to spend time on vacation, even though they have the time coming. ©Thinkstock.com

Vacation or staycation, it doesn’t matter: American workers aren’t taking either.

While a recent study found there is near universal agreement about the importance of taking time off, a large percentage of workers are leaving paid time off on the table.

GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications conducted the study on behalf of the U.S. Travel Association and its research arm, Travel Effect. It looked at 1,303 American workers working 35 or more hours per week that received paid time off.

The study found 96 percent of workers think taking time off is important, but four out of 10 workers do not take all of their PTO each year.

Workers reported several barriers they feel prevent them from taking PTO. Forty percent pointed to a mountain of work, 35 percent said there is no one else to cover their workload while they are gone, 33 percent said they couldn’t afford it, and 33 percent pointed to their high position in the company as the reason they couldn’t get away.

Workers also reported barriers related to company culture. They said company leaders don’t encourage and sometimes even discourage employees from taking their paid time off. They also said the process for taking time off was difficult.

The situation seems to be getting worse.

Another report provided by Travel Effect — All Work, No Pay: The Impact of Forfeited Time Off — said: “From 1976 to 2000, American workers used 20.3 days of vacation each year. Since then, the number has dropped precipitously, with American workers reporting just 16.0 days used in 2013 — almost a full work-week less compared to pre-2000.”

Brian Shapland, general manager of Turnstone, a Steelcase brand, said companies should take steps to encourage workers to take time off, or at the very least provide respite within the office for those workers who aren’t likely to take advantage of their time off.

First, Shapland said company leadership should encourage the use of PTO and create a culture where taking vacation is valued, not looked down upon. In addition, Shapland said allowing employees flexibility by focusing on productivity and not hours clocked might help encourage workers to at least take some time off.

“(That) may manifest itself in time for parents to take their kids to school or to pick their kids up from school, or go to a doctor’s appointment, or flexibility worked in to take a walk around the campus or to work out at lunch,” Shapland said.

Turnstone and Steelcase have focused on wellness for several years now, and Shapland said vacation time certainly fits in with the idea of wellbeing in the workplace.

“The topic of vacation policies is related to the broader notion of wellbeing and trust and engagement in the workplace,” he said.

For workers who are still unlikely to take much needed time off, Shapland said companies should create a culture that supports wellbeing. For instance, he said allowing employees the choice of where and when to work is a great idea.

“Really let people have a sense of choice and control over where and how they work,” he said.

That idea extends to creating different types of spaces within the office to support workers throughout the day. Shapland pointed to the importance of having open collaborative spaces, as well as quiet, tucked-away nooks for employees who need to be alone.

He also said promoting movement throughout the day can increase employee wellbeing, as can offering work arrangements to support a variety of postures from lounging to sitting to standing.

“Our primary and secondary research shows when you are moving, your brain is more stimulated and you are more likely to have creative moments. You are more likely to be productive and innovative,” he said.

Creating a culture that supports down time through paid time off, or through flexibility that helps employees balance work and life demands, has an overall benefit for a company’s bottom line.

“Workers who are happy with their jobs report an environment where bosses and co-workers encourage taking PTO, workers plan and coordinate PTO, and people talk about their PTO experience when returning to work,” the Travel Effect report found.

“The only thing employees gain by being tied to the office is stress. There was a clear correlation between those who have more unused PTO days and those who reported feeling ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed at work, particularly for those employees who leave more than 11 days unused.”

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