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The United States is home to the only advanced economy which doesn't mandate employee vacation days. One could argue that this broad-spectrum lack of prioritization of employee vacation time contributes to a trickle-down, negative effect, resulting in Americans forfeiting a surprising number of vacation days.

Fifty-five percent of US workers do not use all of their vacation time according to a study completed by the US Travel Association, Oxford Economics and Ipsos (pdf). In 2018, missed paid time off (PTO) equaled 768 million unused vacation days or $65.5 billion in lost benefits already allocated to workers.

Perhaps surprisingly, a similar trend can be found with US remote workers.

While you might assume that home-based employees use all or most of their vacation days due to the schedule flexibility of remote work, Buffer’s 2019 “State of Remote Work” report presented a different picture. The study found that although 32% of remote workers polled have unlimited paid time off, only 43% took two to three weeks of vacation time annually, “with an additional 20% selecting options between no vacation and one week per year.”

Businesses should reflect on their company cultures and rethink if and how they promote vacation time as an employee wellness strategy. Doing so is an investment not only in their employees’ well-being but also in their business’s success.

Why Don't Employees Use Vacation Days?

Employees don't use their vacation days for several reasons, not the least of which is the cost. Of the respondents to Bankrate’s “Summer Vacation Survey 2019” who had no plans to take a summer vacation, 60% said they could not afford one. The average cost per trip is $1,979. 

Ironically, other justifications employees offer up for not using vacation days relate to the stress taking time off from work would cause. Kimble, a professional services authorization software vendor, surveyed more than 1,200 full-time US workers on their PTO tendencies and found employees believed using vacation days would ultimately lead to more stressors including:

  • Too many looming deadlines and assignments.
  • Pressure from managers to continue working.
  • Dreading the amount of work awaiting them upon their return.
  • Inability to unplug, including the expectation to be available for work emergencies or check on work while away.
  • Fear of rejected PTO requests or being overlooked for a future promotion opportunity.

Unforeseen personal circumstances, inclement weather events, and public health crises also constrain vacation plans. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Expedia polled 1,500 US residents about changes in their travel and vacation arrangements due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Expedia learned that 60% of respondents “already changed or canceled their travel plans and another 70% are worried about outbreaks impacting future trips.”

Related Article: Avoiding Employee Burnout in the Always-On Workplace

Unused Vacation Time Affects Employee (and Business) Well-Being

Negative outcomes associated with forfeiting vacation days extend beyond missed PTO benefits. Remote workers in particular are susceptible. Skipped vacation days affect the well-being of remote workers, who may already be prone to professional burnout, loneliness, fatigue, feelings of disconnection and overwork. 

Overwork can trigger potentially life-threatening health consequences if left unaddressed, according to one of the world’s oldest peer-reviewed medical journals. In 2015, The Lancet published a study on overwork and its health impacts, concluding that “[e]mployees who work long hours have a higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours,” and “that more attention should be paid to the management of vascular risk factors in individuals who work long hours.”

Related Article: The Loneliness Epidemic Revisited: A 2020 Update

Benefits of Remote Workers Taking Vacations

The majority of the 1500 plus respondents to the American Psychological Association (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence’s “2018 Work and Well-Being Survey” cited a more positive work mood, reduced stress, greater motivation, increased productivity, and improved work quality as benefits following a vacation. These post-vacation benefits proved to be longer lasting within organizations that actively encouraged employees to take time off.

When employees are happy at work, especially when employees combine professional and personal endeavors under one roof, the business reaps the benefits. Positive work cultures create professional spaces where the focus is on employee health rather than cut-throat practices, all without sacrificing output or financial success, according to Harvard Business Review. Low-pressure work environments save on employee healthcare costs, which “are nearly 50% greater at other organizations;” lessen employee disengagement — a primary cause of workplace absenteeism, employee errors and diminished profitability; and heighten company loyalty, leading to fewer instances of employee turnover — an event which can cost as much as 20% of an employee’s salary to replace them.

In remote environments, building positive workplace culture means ingraining practices like open communication and transparency, virtual collaboration, immediate and long-term goal setting and scheduling, time management and self-care, which must include taking time off from work. Remote employees should remember formal or lengthy trips away from home aren't the only way to enjoy vacation days.

For example, vacation days can become staycation time for personal rejuvenation and mindfulness, adopting a new hobby or skills-building, home DIY projects, family activities like backyard camping, or day excursions. Workers can also use their vacation days throughout the year rather than in one multi-week block. Reserving a week’s worth of vacation days for emergencies, unexpected travel or sick days provides greater flexibility for home-based employees.

Related Article: How Leaders Can Foster Good Mental Health for Those Working From Home

6 Ways Employers Can Encourage Remote Workers to Use Their Vacation Time

With data from the APA proving the connection between employers supporting employee vacation time and the lasting impact of post-vacation benefits, upper-level managers of remote-enabled companies can apply these six strategies to encourage full use of employee vacation time and improve the narrative surrounding vacations within their organizations:

  1. Set the standard by taking their own time off and modeling availability boundaries during a vacation.
  2. Outline and clarify PTO and vacation time options, expectations  and policies in accessible guidelines.
  3. Ensure PTO and vacation time approval processes are routine and stress-free.
  4. Foster company culture that values and normalizes vacation time as part of employee wellness and does not tolerate shaming employees who fully use their PTO and vacation time.
  5. Ease the transition of a post-vacation return to work by facilitating a catch-up meeting with relevant staff or encouraging department managers and team members to compile a “Here’s What You Missed” memo-style brief that employees can read and work through at their own pace.
  6. Educate non-remote staff about the dynamics of remote work to establish telecommuting as a worthwhile work arrangement and deconstruct the myth that home-based employees are already on vacation simply by working from their homes.

Encouraging Vacation Is a Business Investment 

Taking a vacation should never induce stress or attract stigma. Vacations should be a respite from the proverbial daily grind that all professionals — yes, even remote workers — endure to varying degrees.

Creating a more positive, low-stress work environment that encourages remote employees to take vacations is a good business investment. It prioritizes employee well-being, reduces employee turnover, builds company loyalty, and increases productivity and work quality. After all, some of the best business investments are ones that inspire employees to invest their time, energy and potential into workplaces they enjoy and are happy to return to following their vacations. Where's the downside in that?