Unused Vacation Time: What Else You're Leaving on the Table


Why are most employees reluctant to take that much-needed vacation time? And what can employers, especially those from the HR department, do to convince them otherwise?

We’ve come a long way from the usual 40-hour workweek. Despite the average of 34.4 hours a week (data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD), American employees still feel overworked and fail to take their paid vacation time privileges. It’s surprising that many workers don’t feel the need to take a break. In fact, they usually refuse to avail their paid time-off (PTO) – even if more and more companies are slowly adapting lax policies about it.


Why We're Unwilling To Take Time-Off

Several studies support why employees need to take advantage of vacation time. Aside from being with friends or family, it should help to clear their mind, remain happier in their jobs, and become more productive.

This has led to many companies (mostly from the tech industry) offering a radical shift in this benefit: the unlimited vacation perk. From professional networking website LinkedIn to multinational conglomerate Virgin Group, unlimited vacation has swept various sectors. This is all in an effort to encourage workers to take a break – not just to be refreshed, but to prevent the high turnover that’s been plaguing many businesses today.

Even so, it seems that not everyone is willing to take advantage. It’s either the majority is such hard workers, or they don’t see it as a perk at all. In a traditional paid vacation time setup, employees would typically leave about three days of vacation time unused. This may not sound so bad, except that in a study called ‘Project: Time-Off’, this has led to a $224 billion deficit over time.

There are basically four reasons why workers would be hesitant to take time-off:

  • They are anxious about keeping their jobs.
  • They don’t want to be passed up for promotions or lead projects during their absence.
  • They don’t want to return to piles of work.
  • They don’t want to feel like a slacker by their coworkers.

It's now up to the HR Department to alleviate these fears and ensure a confident, open environment where employees understand their privileges -- and use them.


Vacation Intervention

Communication is vital. Failing to set standards or make expectations clear can lead to frustration, angst, and confusion when it comes to taking time-off. This is one of the main concerns why unlimited vacation time often fails. Kickstarter is one of the companies that tried this setup before – only to have nixed it due to inefficiency. What was supposed to have been a plan for freedom ended up in disorder when employees ended up NOT taking time-off at all.

Whether your company opts for unlimited vacation time OR the traditional PTO, everyone needs to be onboard in order for work-life balance policies to work. It’s not just HR that needs to address concerns about vacation time. Management, which includes supervisors, managers, and perhaps even the CEO, should serve as fine examples.

If busy executives like Richard Branson, Tim Cook, Bill Gates, and Marissa Mayer can make time for a little R&R, why can’t we? Aside from a break from work, CEOs typically encourage vacations because it helps them cut costs AND keep employees happy, too. Using your PTO benefits will help your mind recharge, thus making you more productive. But at the same time, it will also help your company avoid racking up deficit per employee. It’s a win-win solution.


Revisiting Vacation Time Policies

As mentioned however, it’s critical that everyone understands and agrees on vacation time policies.

  • Companies employing unlimited vacation time should create clear guidelines. It’s not surprising that some employees don’t want this perk, because it doesn’t give them the option of cashing out unused PTO by the end of the year.

  • HR should empower employees who haven’t taken a vacation in a long time. Assure them that delegation is healthy, and that their job will NOT be taken away should they decide to pursue that two-week vacation. This talk can be done with the employee’s direct manager or supervisor.

  • Management and Human Resources can aid employees through personal coaches or peer reviews about work habits. These one-on-one collaborations should highlight the need for time-off. Help workaholics slowly learn to delegate tasks, go home on time, and cut off unproductive habits during working hours.

  • Another good option is to roll-over unused vacation time. This allows employees and managers to agree on specific vacation times based on the worker’s productivity.

  • Human Resources should also take a physical AND mental break from the pressures of work. It can be challenging to hire the right people if your judgment is clouded. Explore new scenery, get out and move. When you come back, you’ll be surprised at the new ideas your mind can come up with.

Note: Before implementing new vacation time policies, consult the employees, the state labor laws, and unions to ensure you are not violating any rules.


About the Author: Cris Antonio is the Chief Editor of She’s currently focused on helping healthcare workers and millennials find better career opportunities through Locum Tenens. Aside from writing, Cris also enjoys painting, collecting toys, and reading German novels. Get to know her better on LinkedIn

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