New research found that U.S. workers didn’t use 768 million vacation days in 2018. An HR expert offers advice for employees and employers on making sure those days get used.
Last year, workers didn’t use 768 million vacation days, according to a new study from the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics, and Ipsos. Since research has shown vacations help keep workers from burning out, how do you get employees to use the vacation days they’ve earned? Barbara Mitchell, a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR, said the key is to make employees feel vacation is valued.
“We need to get employees to feel that their organization wants them to take the vacation,” said Mitchell. “We all need time away.”
According to the study, the reasons people didn’t take vacation included cost, difficulty getting away from work, and travel hassles. But paying big bucks to get away isn’t necessary, according to Mitchell.
“The point is to relax and renew your body, mind, and spirit so that you can focus in a different way when you return to work,” she said. “It can be something as simple as making a list of things you’ve never done in your town and taking a week to do something on your list every day. It doesn’t have to be something big or expensive—just something that takes your mind off work.”
Organizations can also help employees by modeling the behavior they want to see. “The organization leaders need to take their own vacations,” Mitchell said. “Employees take their cues from their leaders.”
If an employee works for an organization that doesn’t value vacation time, they can still take vacation, but it is much harder. “It’s stepping out and saying, ‘This is important for me, and I need this in my own sanity,’” Mitchell said. “But, boy, that takes some confidence and clarity.”
While 768 million unused vacation days seems bleak, there is a silver lining: The study showed that less than a third of those days, 236 million, were completely forfeited. That means 532 million of those unused days could be “rolled over” to another year or “banked out.” Mitchell added that sometimes there are good reasons why people save their vacation time, whether that’s because they’re getting married or planning a longer overseas trip to visit family.
However, unused vacation could also signal an employment market where more people are switching jobs. “A lot of people don’t take their vacation when they’re planning on changing jobs,” Mitchell said. “They want to get the payout at the end.”
While close to 800 million vacation days were lost, the study found people who planned for their vacations used more time off than those who didn’t. Planners took 12 days of vacation, compared to the five days taken by nonplanners.
Employees wanting to take full advantage of their vacation days should be proactive in the planning department, and Mitchell thinks it would be great for employers to be proactive too.
“I think it would be good if organizations would remind people,” Mitchell said. “People should be encouraged to think about their vacations at the beginning of the year, to get stuff on the calendar, and make sure their managers know.”