Summer Bummer: Nearly Half of Workers Have Unused Vacation

The year is half over, and you may be wondering when you can use the rest of the paid time off your employer has made available. Or it’s just as likely that you will not take all the personal time you have accrued, especially if you are older or higher up in the organizational chart.

A survey earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found employees value PTO even more than health insurance or a 401(k) plan. Still, nearly half of almost 5,200 respondents say leaving PTO on the table is typical. (Paid time off is not a universal benefit, especially in lower-level positions, so Pew limited its research to respondents who do have PTO available and are not self-employed.) The most common explanation for unused PTO was not feeling a need for more time off (52%), followed closely by concern about falling behind while away from the job (49%). 

Those reasons for not taking full advantage of a valued benefit sound familiar to Kelli Beene, vice president and human resources director for Malvern National Bank and president of the West Central Arkansas Human Resource Association. 

“I think there’s a cultural hesitation to take time off simply because of the workload everybody has,” Beene says, referring to the workforce in general and not to MNB specifically. “It’s common if you lose two workers, you replace them with one. I think a lot more work is being done with less people.”

In the Pew study, more than four in 10 cited concern about leaving extra work for coworkers. Beene speculated that this was probably a more common concern among women, who tend to use PTO for family responsibilities rather than relaxation. 

“Women are often the ones dealing with children, so they feel guilty taking more time off for themselves.”

Beene says she often finds herself reminding employees — especially older ones — that they have PTO they need to use or lose. A common refrain among management-level employees is the fear of having a bunch of errors and mistakes to fix when they get back to work.

She gave a one-word answer to that problem: “Cross-train.” Even though it seems easier to do everything yourself, having a bench of skilled, trained workers is not just helpful when it’s time to go on vacation. It’s simply good management to recognize talent and prepare them to take on more responsibility. 

“Find that star, shine them up and get them ready to take your job.”

A smaller but significant number of respondents say they fear taking more time off might hurt their chances for job advancement (19%) or that they might risk losing their job (16%). With unemployment at historic lows in most markets across the U.S., those fears may be less rational than in the past.

A more realistic problem is not really being able to unplug from work even when you are supposedly off work thanks to instant communication. 

“You may not feel the need to take time off because you are still working when you do take time off, so what’s the point?” 

That always-working phenomenon reflects the traditional American workplace culture, she says. “We are hard workers. We are just driven. We don’t take siestas.” 

But is the culture shifting? “Ab-so-lute-ly!” Beene says, drawing out every syllable.

“Managers tend to be older and have that culture of working sunup to sundown,” she says, while younger workers are skilled and comfortable using technology that makes them more productive. This cultural change is causing Beene and other HR professionals to consider more fundamental changes in working hours than just how much PTO employees need and use, but that’s a topic for another article. 

  

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