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Why Americans should vacation more — but don’t

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
Source: Thinkstock

The travel industry wants you to take more time off -- and they’ve got the data to prove you should.

The U.S. Travel Association has been publishing research on Americans’ work and vacation habits, and apparently we suffer from a “work martyr complex” that leaves us needlessly chained to the office.

The latest data shows the typical worker who gets paid time off takes just 16 days of vacation per year, even though she’s entitled to about 21 days of leave. Some of those lost vacation days can be rolled into the following year, but some are lost permanently.

Those 16 days of annual getaway time represent a new low in the amount of vacation Americans take. Here's the trend since 1976:

Source: U.S. Travel Association

The USTA calls those five foregone vacation days “America’s lost week” and says it costs the U.S. economy $284 billion per year. And if you happen to be one of those undervacationed workaholics, the travel association has important news for you: Spending extra time at the office won’t help your career.

“The work martyr complex thrives on face time and fear,” the group says, “and it’s not helping American workers get ahead.” Here’s the proof: People who sacrifice the most vacation time are 6.5% less likely to get a raise or bonus than people who take every day off they’re entitled to.

Can't afford it

It’s obviously in the travel industry’s financial interest to get workers to take more vacations so they spend more on airlines, hotels and souvenirs. But the main reason people are reluctant to take full advantage of their earned time off probably has nothing to do with a work martyr complex. 

The biggest problems in the U.S. economy right now are stagnant incomes and lost wealth—the aftereffects of a ruinous housing bust and deep recession. Median household income has fallen since the recession began in 2007 and may not reach pre-recession levels for another five years. Meanwhile, the typical family has lost about 40% of its wealth since 2007.

The USTA asserts that lost vacation time amounts to $52.4 billion in forfeited benefits per year, or about $502 per employee. It characterizes that sum as a “voluntary pay cut,” with some media outlets making it sound as if taking more vacation days would actually put money in workers’ pockets.

That’s screwy logic. It might be true that average daily pay multiplied by the total number of unclaimed vacation days amounts to billions of dollars. But at the individual worker level, nobody gets paid to take a day off. If you use vacation time to travel, it actually costs you money. Plus, about one-fourth of all U.S. workers -- roughly 34 million people -- have jobs such as waiters, retail clerks, nannies and part-timers in many industries that come with no time off, which means they actually lose pay if they go on vacation. In fact, the United States stands alone among 21 wealthy countries as the only one in which employers aren't required to offer paid time off

So the $284 billion supposedly lost to the U.S. economy on account of forfeited vacation days is money Americans might be spending if they had it and felt comfortable parting with it. But they probably don't have it! If somebody gave workers a big raise, sure, they might spend some of it on a cruise to Belize or a jaunt to Disney World. But companies are barely giving raises, and workers are cutting back as necessary.

It is worth asking whether American workers have become so gun-shy they’re afraid to claim benefits their employers actually want them to take. Yet there’s evidence that theory is bunk, too. Polls by Gallup show that Americans’ sense of their own job security, after plunging during the recession, has reached the highest levels in at least 20 years (see the chart below). That’s not because the economy is particularly strong (it’s not), but because companies have shed so many workers there’s barely anybody left they can afford to fire.

Source: Gallup

Most workers who forfeit vacation days probably fall into one of two groups: workaholic strivers, who love being on the job and do tend to get ahead, and diligent middletons who can’t afford to get away and don’t see the point of taking a day off just to stay home.

As for those 6.5-percenters who get smaller raises than their peers who vacation more, they may be underperformers to start with who take fewer vacation days because they have less money to spend on a trip and nowhere to go. Fatten their paychecks, and airplanes and hotels might end up a little fuller.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.