About 400 million days.
That’s the collective amount of earned leave, according to an Oxford Economics study, American workers walked away from in 2014. The numbers forgoing vacation for their vocation negatively impact not only employees’ mental and physical health and productivity, but can mean ancillary costs for employers and the economy as a whole.
Entering peak vacation season, the U.S. Travel Association, based in Washington, D.C., launched an initiative to address the country’s aversion to relaxation.
The campaign, called Project: Time Off, aims “to prove the personal, business, social and economic benefits that taking earned time off can deliver. … Unused leave costs the U.S. economy $160 billion in spending that could support 1.2 million jobs in multiple industries, ranging from retail to manufacturing to transportation.”
Unused leave also translates to $224 billion in liabilities on balance sheets of American companies, according to the U.S. Travel Association, which states that vacation liability grew by $65.6 billion in the last year alone.
From the top
Creating an office culture that promotes downtime is the first step, according to Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It really starts with the person in charge of the office setting the tone,” Price said. “I personally challenged my staff in 2014 [to use paid time off]. … I had time left over at the end of 2014, but I already have vacation planned for 2015 and I hope my workers do the same.”
If more workers fully took advantage of paid vacations, Price said, the region would reap the rewards.
“We’re talking about it from a local basis. We know we depend on out-of-town visitors to spend money, and that’s great, but what can be done locally to support tourism?” Price said. “Maybe you can’t go to Hawaii this year, but you can take advantage of the region.”
Price said area tourist destinations provide activities not found elsewhere, but often are underutilized by those taking short vacations within driving distance.
“We live in a magnificent state,” Price said. “One of the most important things you can do here locally is support places like Royal Gorge Bridge, which just invested millions to open after the fire.”
Price said the newly renovated Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center and Seven Falls, which is expected to reopen this summer following extensive renovations since its acquisition by The Broadmoor, are old spots made new again.
“People travel from all over the world to see our great attractions,” Price said. “I hope people here will not leave paid time off on the books and help out the local, national and state economy.”
Martyrs need not apply
According to Project: Time Off, “America’s always-on work culture exerts a powerful influence on our decisions about using paid time off.” The initiative lists leading cultural barriers to vacation, such as “a negative vibe” about paid time off.
“Two-thirds of American workers say their company culture either says nothing about taking time off, sends mixed messages or discourages them from using PTO,” an analysis by the initiative states.
A second reason for neglecting downtime was “no control when it comes to earned benefits.”
Project: Time Off reports “[paid time off] is typically a defined employee benefit, just like salary and health care. Yet despite being a significant part of their total compensation, nearly one-third of workers (31 percent) say they do not control their own PTO — the company does. It’s like one-third of Americans refusing to see the doctor until their employer allows them to.”
According to Price, “martyrs” are to blame for a significant amount of lost paid vacation.
“People are fearful if they take time off, their work won’t get done,” he said. “Or, they’re afraid their absence will be noticed and if others don’t take time off, their vacation doesn’t go with the culture of the office. For leaders, the martyr syndrome means things won’t run as well if they are not there. Leaders need to check their ego. If they have good people working for them, things will run just fine.”
The culture at some companies, however, has shifted, making it perfectly clear to employees that they are expected to seek a work-life balance.
Information provided by Project: Time Off reported Travelzoo, a global company providing travel deals on the Internet, incentivizes paid time off via its “Travelzoo Experience” program, which offers every employee an annual $1,500 stipend and three days additional vacation to test the company’s travel offerings.
Netflix offers its employees unlimited vacation “in line with the company’s culture of freedom and responsibility,” according to the initiative.
Hubspot, an inbound marketing company based in Massachusetts, implemented an unlimited vacation policy in 2010 and mandates two weeks of vacation a year for employees. Project: Time Off reported the company’s earnings quadrupled to $77.6 million since the policy was implemented.
USAA, which employs 1,700 at its Colorado Springs campus, provides employees each year the opportunity to buy and sell paid time off for the next calendar year, according to Megan Sutton of FleishmanHillard, the public relations company representing USAA. Full-time employees can buy and sell up to 40 hours, and part-time employees can buy and sell up to 25 hours, Sutton said.
To help military spouses, USAA also offers Permanent Change of Station leave to full- and part-time employees who are the legal spouse or domestic partner of an active-duty military service member going through a PCS and have been approved by management to continue employment with USAA in the new duty location.
Also in Colorado Springs, elope Inc. a local costume manufacturer and distributor, offers its employees a five-year and 10-year bonus with the stipulation it be used on a vacation.
Carolye Asfahl, chief operations optimizer with elope, would not disclose a dollar amount regarding the bonus, but did say employees have used the additional funds for everything from a staycation to international trips. She said employees also are allowed unpaid time off if they’ve used their allotted vacation time — paid time off includes 12 days the first year and two additional days for each subsequent year of employment.
“It’s about feeling appreciated, and it encourages longevity,” Asfahl said. “I think we’re very human about people taking their time off when they need it.”