U.S. Workers Choosing Burnout Over Vacation?

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By Genevieve Douglas

U.S. workers are increasingly putting off using vacation leave—a recipe for burnout that employers should consider discouraging.

“Americans–when compared to other countries with shorter work weeks and more extensive vacation allotments–have a much more committed work ethic. There’s pride in working long hours, working non-stop and not wanting to take time off,” Lenny Sanicola, senior practice leader at HR trade association WorldatWork, told Bloomberg BNA March 22.

As the U.S. rebounds from the economic recession there’s increasingly more work and fewer resources, and that may be compounding the problem, he said. Moreover, smart technology has us tethered to our desks 24/7, Sanicola added.

Employees also tend to look at short-term productivity and forget about the potential for burnout in the longer run if they’re not taking vacations as needed, Lonnie Golden, senior research analyst for the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, told Bloomberg BNA March 23. “Most people probably discount or underestimate what happens if you don’t have efficient time off,” Golden said.

According to Alamo Rent A Car’s annual vacation survey, fewer than half of workers (47 percent) are using all of their paid vacation days, compared with 60 percent in the 2015 study and 57 percent in the 2016 study. Moreover, less than one in five (18 percent) of the survey participants reported using all of their vacation days to actually go on a vacation, as opposed to activities such as staying home and running errands.

When asked why they were leaving vacation days unused, more than half (57 percent) of survey respondents reported feeling guilty when they go on vacation because their co-workers have to take over their job duties, and nearly half (48 percent) said they feel the need to justify to their employer why they’re taking the time off.

Alamo’s survey findings are based on responses from 2,100 adults across the U.S., and the survey was conducted between Jan. 5 and Jan. 10.

Is Workplace Culture the Culprit?

“Clearly Americans leave a lot of vacation time on the table,” and this could be due to guilt or due to workplace culture, Sanicola said. In many workplaces the leave is offered, but the workplace culture doesn’t give employees the impression they should use it, he said.

The recent spate of companies offering unlimited time off is an example of this, Sanicola said, because at many of them the policies resulted in employees being more reticent to leave. “Policies don’t necessarily influence employee behavior, there has to be the right working environment as well,” Sanicola said.

“It’s a real challenge when we have this rigorous competition in the workplace,” Golden said. Some of the fears employees have are justified, he said. “There’s a lot of signaling going on” that employees will be judged for their time away from the office, he noted.

Any attempt to change this kind of workplace culture would have to come from top leadership, he said, adding: “If you really do want people not to burn out, you encourage them with more than just words to actually use the vacation and the time off.”

However, U.S. workers may need an intervention for overworking at the national level, Golden said, such as a “right to request” public policy that would protect employees from adverse action when they need time off. For example, European countries such as Norway and France have cultures where public policies protect employees who want to vacation, Golden said. Appropriate self-care requires time, money and the recognition that an employee needs to unplug, he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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