Gone to Waste in America: 1.8 Million Years of Vacation Time

Now that the kids are back to school and summer vacation time is officially over, we thought we'd investigate how Americans are using -- or not using -- their vacation days. We interviewed time-off expert, Katie Denis, senior director of Project: Time Off, and the results of her organization's ongoing research are quite surprising.

WATCH: ExpertFlyer's One-on-One Interview with Katie Denis of Project: Time Off

Katie Denis: Generally, most Americans are not taking all their vacation time. 55% of them left time on the table last year to the tune of 658 million unused days. That's 1.8 million years if you want to break it down.

ExpertFlyer: We asked our subscribers what they thought the biggest benefits of travel were, and the top 3 responses were exposure to beauty, culture, new people, increased energy and excitement and of course stress relief. What are the other external benefits that employers are seeing?

KD: We're an innovation based economy. We really do rely on new ideas to drive the US forward. I think we have all these concepts that we try; there's entrepreneur and residence programs, there's nap pods, there's free coffee. It can be simple, it can be complex. One of the easiest things businesses can do is encourage the vacation policy you already have on your books. Just talking about it is free, it's simple, but a lot of us don't do it. Two-thirds of employees say, "I don't really hear much of anything about vacation from my employer."

If we can just start that conversation, the benefits are massive. Higher productivity, increased innovation and creativity, better overall performance, and then retention. I mean, everyone understands the importance of retention and the cost of replacing a new employee. The Society for Human Resource Management puts it at about 6 to 9 months salary to replace an employee. That's the cost of it. Your bottom line is definitely affected by the intangibles, like the innovation, productivity elements, but also by the very tangible things when it comes to the cost of retaining an employee.

EF: Do you think that millennials are driving a cultural shift in terms of prioritizing time off in the workplace?

KD: I actually think it's quite the opposite. I do think they value work/life balance and I read a lot of external studies in preparation for working on our recently released study regarding millennials and time off. It does seem like work/life balance is really important to them. Vacation is not a factor in their work/life balance equation is what we're finding. They are actually the most likely to forfeit vacation time, and I mean forfeit; you can't roll it over, you can't bank it, you can't be paid out for it, it's really just lost even though they get the least amount of time. Percentage-wise that's a really big difference. They are the most likely to feel the pressures that, "I don't want to be seen as replaceable, no one else can do the job, I'm afraid of what my boss might think, I feel guilty." They're more susceptible.

When you think about the conditions when they entered the workforce, it makes a lot of sense. Many of them, the large swath of that generation came in during a rough economy. Even if it wasn't smack dab in the middle of the recession, the after affects of that have lingered for a long time. Once they got a job they were holding on to it. They were going to keep it and they were going to prove their worth through face time. Face time is a little bit different for millennials. They're much more likely to stay connected even if they are taking time off. When they do take time off and they stay connected they say that they feel less productive when they return. They're not really getting that break to reset. We're really not seeing that millennials are fitting that kind of entitled, spoiled stereotype that we're very familiar with.

What we're finding is that they want to show what they perceive is this total dedication, but it's actually hurting them. The people who take more time versus less, are often times more likely to get a raise or bonus, that's what we found. The people who reported receiving a raise or bonus in the last 3 years were those that took 11 or more days off versus people who took 10 or fewer days. More vacation can actually yield more results, which is great. I think for those people who think, "The more days I can log, that my attendance record shows my value," first of all, it might not actually be noticed at all. Second of all, you can actually be hurting your value.

EF: What do you tell an employee that may be intimidated or feel this pressure? They may be putting it on themselves, granted, but there's got to be a way for them to counter this in some way in the workforce. What's the advice that you give them when they're feeling this pressure not to take a vacation?

KD: The greatest amount of pressure is certainly the pressure we put on ourselves. It's far greater than the pressure we feel from others. Then, again, 2/3 of people don't really hear anything. We're kind of filling that vacuum with our own fears and anxieties. That's kind of how we've decided to approach things, because we're not asking the question. I think if employees ask the question, "Hey you know, I think I'm going to take some time off. How does that sound? Does this timing work? It's going to be really fun, it's going to be great, I'm excited about it." They would be surprised that most managers we talk to understand the benefits of time off.

They know it's good for their employees as individuals. They also know it's good for their teams. That's something that really comes through, is they want a really positive team culture. We've all worked with that person who needs a break. Right? You're kind of walking on eggshells around them, you're afraid to bother them. That is not productive, that is not good for the team. Make sure you're not that person and take a break, because I think that you will find that managers are overwhelmingly supportive, but we don't ask the question and we don't talk about it in the workplace. Start the conversation. Don't be afraid.

EF: Do you think that we will ever get to European standards when it comes to vacations?

KD: You know, everyone always says, "Oh, we're not going to be France. That's not us." We don't need to be France. We actually can be the US just 15 years ago. This decline in vacation is a relatively recent phenomenon. We were very static from the '70s to about 2000. We took 20.3 days as a long term average. In 2000 is when we started dropping off, and we've lost almost a week of vacation time in just 15 years. Let's get back to that, because that is a big change, a big shift.

Going back to the millennial issue, that's the only world they've ever known -- the era of declining vacation usage. If that keeps up it's just going to get worse because they're cementing their habits now. This is when they're forming their traditions, their habits, the way they're going to approach the workplace. They're increasingly becoming managers. We don't want managers who don't appreciate the value of vacation. We need to start a conversation and we need to do it now because this has happened in short order and I think we can get it back, but we've got to make a change.

Chris is the President and Co-Founder of ExpertFlyer.com, a service that helps travelers get out of the "Middle Seat" by providing in-depth flight info and alerts when Awards and Upgrades are available.