American workers collectively leave $272 billion worth of vacation time on the table, according to a new study — and it's a drag on worker productivity as well as companies' balance sheets.
"There are no winners when people don't take time off," said Katie Denis, senior director of Project: Time Off, a travel industry group that explores how people use (or don't use) their vacation time.
A new Project: Time Off report says that employees in the private sector left a total of 658 million vacation days on the table in 2015, and previous research the group has conducted found that 55 percent of employees leave behind at least some of their vacation allowance at the end of the year. A 2014 Glassdoor.com survey put the percentage even higher, at about three in four.
Experts say there are a few culprits for our vacation-avoiding tendencies, including our always-connected devotion to electronic devices, lingering job insecurity held over from the Great Recession, and managers not cultivating a corporate culture where taking time off is the norm.
"For many organizations, they're working with fewer people, they're trying to do more with less, so folks are working longer and harder," said Carol Sladek, a work-life integration expert with HR consulting firm Aon Hewitt.
"A lot of people live in fear, and they work in fear that if they take time away and out of work that they're out of sight, out of mind," said career coach Roy Cohen.
But forfeiting vacation ultimately does more harm than good. "Burnout is an enormous issue," Cohen warned. "Your performance lags, which has the potential to be more damaging… You're just not present."
Despite the risks, many employees also might forgo vacation because of the company culture. Project: Time Off found that most managers expressed positive sentiments about vacation as a concept, but many fell short when it came to taking it themselves. Although more than 90 percent said vacation time was important for their employees, nearly 60 percent didn't use all of their personal vacation time.
This winds up sending the wrong message to employees, Denis said. "Managers are positive about vacation but their behavior doesn't reinforce that," she said. "I don't think they think their actions impact employees the way that they do."
There are ways to get a vacation on your calendar even if you don't work in an environment that's openly supportive, though. Start off a vacation request by recapping all of the great things you've accomplished — and the long hours you've worked to do so — when you bring up the topic with your boss.
Managers want the best
"The number one thing managers are afraid of is burnout," Denis said. "They don't want to lose talent," so pairing your request for some time off with a reminder of how you've been burning the candle at both ends is a good tactic.
"Send reminders put up out-of-office messages," she said. "We want that transparency and that predictability."
"I'd make sure there are no loose ends. I'd have a contingency plan in place," Cohen advised, adding, "You can say, 'I'm going to be checking my email and voicemail once daily,' so you're building in some boundaries."
Of course, the best way to avoid having to fight just to take the time you're allowed is to work for an employer that understands the need for workers to take a break every now and then. Accordingly, experts say there are some steps job-seekers can take to get a feel for how vacation-friendly a corporate culture is.
"At companies that value people taking time off, you will typically see vacation time policies in the job description itself or in the 'about us' section," Scott Dobroski, career trends analyst at job and salary review site Glassdoor.com.
Consider flexible work options
Dobroski said other positive signs are references to flexible scheduling options like working from home or flex time, which can indicate that a company places high regard on work-life balance in general.
If the company's vacation policy is featured prominently in a job posting or an "about" section, or if a hiring manager brings it up proactively in an interview, these are all good signs that the company isn't just paying lip service to the concept of vacation time.
Dobroski said feedback from current workers (like the reviews on Glassdoor) can be indicative, with some keywords especially telling. "If you see vacation time in the pro section of six or seven reviews, that's really good," he said. On the flip side, words like "long hours" can be a red flag.
"Some of it you can tell by the way the vacation plan is designed, as well," Sladek said. For instance, use-it-or-lose-it policies can inadvertently prevent workers from claiming all of their vacation time. "I think the intent is to be beneficial to the employee. The reality can be, though, in many jobs, it's difficult to take that time by the end of the year," she said.
Along with allowing workers to roll over unused vacation time, Sladek said it's a good sign is if a company doesn't require a long tenure before workers can start accruing meaningful vacation time. "The trend is to provide more time sooner, giving those three weeks upfront," she said, in recognition that workers today don't expect to spend their entire career with a single employer. "It's a more modernized structure."