Workforce & Workplace
Why Don’t Americans Take More Time Off Work?
Mia Mends
Mia Mends
Benefits & Rewards Services
Sodexo USA

You might joke that your office seems like a ghost town during the summer months, when many people take time off to go on vacation. In reality it should probably feel that way more often. American workers take only 51 percent of the paid time off they’re eligible for, MarketWatch reports.

People in other countries, especially in vacation-happy Europe, simply can’t understand why Americans don’t take their paid time off. Last summer, the BBC investigated the issue in an article entitled “America’s National Vacation Problem.” The U.K. news service noted pityingly that Americans aren’t even legally guaranteed paid vacation. The same story mentioned that, in 1910, President Taft proposed a three-month vacation for all Americans, a fact that seems jaw-dropping today.

All told, Americans are estimated to leave about 429 million paid vacation days on the table annually. Why? Here are a few reasons, and some ways to counter them.

 “Work martyr syndrome”

MarketWatch blames much of our fear of leaving the office on “work martyr syndrome,” the need to show that you’re working harder than anyone else and that no one can do your job as well as you. This syndrome turned into an epidemic after the Great Recession, when jobs were scarce and showing that you were working hard seemed like a good way not to lose yours. But many workers still report a fear that if they take time off, they won’t have a job to come back to. To make sure your office doesn’t fall victim, workplace leaders need to set the tone. Not only do the higher-ups need to take some vacation, but they should praise employees who take it as well.

A workaholic culture

Working hard is part of our national heritage. After all, “The American Dream” is about working hard to achieve your goals. Many Americans take pride in spending all those hours at the office. But what if I told you that all that work doesn’t mean we’re working efficiently? Despite our pride in hard work, America ranked third globally in productivity in 2014, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Luxembourg and Norway beat us, and we barely edged out Belgium. The lesson here is that taking breaks can actually boost your efficiency. Remember this the next time you’re tempted to work on the weekend.

Fear of an overflowing inbox

Another reason often cited for not taking paid time off is the fear of coming back to an overflowing inbox and unfinished projects. Many employees feel they need to work twice as hard before going on vacation to get the work done ahead of time, and it’s common to answer emails and texts about work even when you’re in a far-off location. To avoid this happening to your staff, managers should organize teams efficiently and make sure that each employee has a designated back-up who can take care of the work while the person is out.

Are you planning to use all of your paid time off this year?  Tell us why or why not in the comments.


Mia Mends is CEO, Sodexo Benefits & Rewards Services, USA.

5 comments on “Why Don’t Americans Take More Time Off Work?

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    Nydia Eichler says:

    I will absolutely take all my vacation time, Americans need to have the American Dream Evolve.
    The new American Dream needs to encompass time for yourself and your family. When you
    come back from vacation, your are more productive, see things from a fresh perspective and
    are enthusiastic about work because it afforded you paid time off.

    Pass the dream on…to the future generation…

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    Carolynn Brown-Ukpaka says:

    Excellent article, topic that has been well researched, First became acquainted with this concept about 15 years ago. While I agree with the following: “To make sure your office doesn’t fall victim, workplace leaders need to set the tone. Not only do the higher-ups need to take some vacation, but they should praise employees who take it as well”
    .Stronger sell of this message on behalf of the rank and file is needed.

  • Avatar

    While every year I work very hard to ensure I take my paid time off, and I am usually successful, I am guilty of sometimes bringing my connected device with me. I have taken cruises where the cost of Internet access is prohibitive, and I tend to enjoy those vacations more. They give me an opportunity to recharge and think without daily disruptions. I’ll do one final check the morning we embark, and then upon returning make it a point to browse to see if anything is important that needed an immediate answer. Funny, there never is. All the “urgent” requests not only waited for my return, but could have waited another day or two while I slowly re-entered the work environment.

    The point is, take your time, you have earned and deserve it. Enjoy spending time with friends, family, and experiencing things you would normally not experience while working. The insights you gain from these breaks in your work life increase your overall balance and improve the way you look at projects, tasks and work overall. Happy Vacationing.

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    Ray Bates says:

    I can totally relate to the above article. I made the same excuses to my family and my employers until one day I said to myself “wise up”. Maybe it’s because as I have grown older,( born in the mid 5o”s not to give my age away). I can’t wait for my vacation and personal days to become available. I love to be with my wife and family whenever I can, wherever I can, for every minute with them is a gift. So many of us seem to think time away from work is only for retirees. Live each day to it’s fullest. Do the best you can do at your work and always reward yourself by taking your time off.

  • Avatar
    Veronika Murray says:

    Thank you Mia, great article. I had no idea that the numbers are so hight(51%). I believe a lot of this has to do with the company we are working for. If an employee feels comfortable and secure with his position and the company overall he/she would not second guess on taking all well deserved vacation. Sodexo is an exemplary company for that reason. Being with sodexo for almost 6 years not once I second guessed my vacation time(well maybe once, but for other reasons).
    Thank you for sharing this with us.


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