This article appears in August Family magazine.
If you work and earn vacation time off, consider yourself lucky. If you work and earn vacation time off but don’t take it, you may be a martyr to your job. Or, it may be because your company is making it too difficult to take advantage of its vacation policy.
Companies do not have to offer employees paid time off, even for federal holidays or illness, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s a big difference from other countries like the United Kingdom, which mandates 28 days off a year, or the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Finland and Denmark, which mandate 25 days off.

“Our research shows that on average Americans are earning 23.2 days of vacation, which is a lot. The problem comes from the lack of a positive vacation culture in the office,” said Cait DeBaun, director of communications for Project: Time Off, which advocates for bringing back the American vacation. “Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of employees report hearing nothing or mixed messages about taking time off. You can offer a great vacation policy, but if you don’t actively encourage it, the benefits are lost.”

American vacation habits are trending more positively, with employees using an average of 17.2 vacation days in 2017, the highest amount in seven years, according the Project: Time Off Vacation in America 2018 study. More progress needs to be made, though, because 52 percent of Americans leave earned time unused.

Unlimited but unused
A relatively recent trend is companies such as General Electric, Honeywell, Roku and Kabbage offering unlimited vacation for many employees, according to Glassdoor, a workplace review site that also offers its employees unlimited vacation.

If that sounds too good to be true, it is — for some people.

“The biggest hurdle with implementing unlimited vacation is when employees don’t know the speed limit — or how much vacation is culturally acceptable — so they take about the same amount they would’ve with a standard time off policy,” DeBaun said. “Companies who are interested in offering an effective, unlimited vacation policy should consider a mandatory minimum of days off, so employees actually take the breaks they need.”
No vacation shaming
“After health care, employees rank vacation as their No. 1 benefit,” DeBaun said. “It’s not expensive or particularly hard to create a positive vacation culture, but it does take intention. The key is communication.”

Small changes go a big way, whether it’s managers leading by example, the C-Suite setting the tone from the top or human resources continuing the conversation beyond onboarding, she said.

“Planning is key to using all your time off. Project: Time Off research shows that employees who plan out their time use more of their vacation time, take longer vacations and are happier with their job and relationships,” DeBaun said.
Work benefits
Vacation is not only good for an employee’s health, well-being and productivity, it’s also a boost for the company.

“Prioritizing time off is prioritizing yourself and your career,” DeBaun said. “While work martyrdom is a top reason Americans don’t take their time, there’s no evidence it helps someone get ahead; in fact, employees who use their vacation time are equally, and sometimes more, likely to have received a recent raise, bonus or promotion.

“If you’re looking to improve your vacation habits, set a goal of taking one more day each quarter or tacking one more day on to each trip. Before you know it, you’ll have turned that fear of missing out at work into the joy of making memories,” DeBaun said.