U.S. vacation time is short, and Americans don’t use it wisely

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Americans are terrible at taking vacations. Why are U.S. workers so bad at taking time off?

Two weeks of vacation is not sufficient, said President William Howard Taft in 1910. How much did the president think Americans should have? Two to three months — that’s what is needed for people to protect their “health and constitution.”

Taft’s comments calling for a new vacation policy never made any headway, in part due to pushback from business leaders and legislators.

Fast-forward to more than a century later, and the acceptable ideology on vacation in the U.S. has pretty much stayed the same while other countries have greatly expanded policies that require companies to give employees access to paid annual leave.

The United States still has no federal paid vacation policy, making it one of only a handful of countries without guaranteed paid annual leave. Canada and Japan are also among the countries with the least paid annual leave, the report said, at 10 days each. Both countries, however, require employers to offer more vacation based on seniority.

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The U.S. is also the only country within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — an intergovernmental organization composed of 38 member countries promoting global trade — without a paid annual leave policy, according to “No Vacation Nation,” a 2019 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Workers in the European Union, for instance, receive a minimum of four weeks of paid holidays each year under the Working Time Directive. Some countries set the bar even higher, the report said. France guarantees workers at least 30 days of paid annual leave.

Other high-income nations outside the EU also beat out the U.S. when it comes to vacation time. Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland have set the minimum at four weeks of paid annual leave.

It is also about when workers are allowed take vacation and for how long at a time. And nine European countries go so far as to give workers the right to take all or some of their leave during summer — “peak vacation season,” the report said. Sweden and Finland, for instance, allow employees to schedule vacations in blocks of four consecutive weeks, while Portugal guarantees 10-day chunks.

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Are Americans even using the (comparatively) little vacation time they have?

The answer appears to be no. In 2018, a study from the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics and Ipsos found that 55 percent of employees said they didn’t use all their paid time off.

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Why? A series of studies published by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology last year found that employees left more unused vacation days on the table under the following circumstances:

  • felt they couldn’t adequately disconnect from work while on vacation
  • thought they wouldn’t feel relaxed or connect with loved ones
  • anticipated negative outcomes, such as feeling stressed or having financial burdens.

And it isn’t all their fault, according to a Qualtrics survey from March that found that employer and co-worker expectations were included in the reasons workers gave for being unable to unplug. Specifically, they feared falling behind on work and letting down their team and felt pressure from their co-workers to stay and work.

And their fears were not unfounded. Almost a third of workers surveyed said they were expected to answer phone calls or texts from work, while more than a quarter said they are expected to respond to work emails.

The result: Almost half of employees surveyed worked an hour a day while on vacation last year.

What is the mental and physical health cost of not taking a work-free vacation?

“Employees who take little-to-no time-off work are more likely to have a variety of health-related issues,” according to a paper published in the BRC Academy Journal of Business.

However, the study found that when employees did take an “ample amount of time off,” they had a much better work-life balance. That led to improved personal relationships and increased job satisfaction, among other benefits.

While taking paid time off to rest and rejuvenate is one of several necessary steps needed to address workplace burnout, not all vacations are created equally. “Poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away,” the Harvard Business Review reported.

“Stress involved with managing transportation, trying to deal with details while on the trip, unfamiliarity with the location, and lack of feeling safe all contributed to travelers feeling less happy and more stressed, and they had lower energy at work after the average vacation,” wrote the authors of a 2010 study published in Applied Research in Quality of Life.

But 55 percent of workers who went on low-stress trips returned to work, happiness levels higher than they were pre-trip, Harvard Business Review said.

Is there any chance U.S. workers will get more vacation in the future?

Eh … probably not. The reason why the U.S. doesn’t have a federal paid leave policy is related to why we don’t have a better child care policy, more sick days or other safety net provisions, said Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute.


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The U.S. doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure in place that thinks about workers and their families in the kind of totality that some other countries do, she said.

The most recent push for federal legislation, which wasn’t actually all that recent, included two bills in the late 2000s.

The Paid Vacation Act of 2009, sponsored by Alan Grayson, then a Democratic U.S. representative for Florida’s 8th Congressional District — notably home to Walt Disney World before redistricting — required employers to provide employees with a minimum of one week of annual paid leave. A few years later, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sponsored the Guaranteed Paid Vacation Act, which would have set the minimum at 10 days.

Both bills, neither of which made it to the floor for a vote, sought to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — which doesn’t require employers to pay employees for “time not worked,” including vacations, holidays and sick days in the United States. According to the Department of Labor, “these benefits are matters of agreement between an employer and an employee.”

Despite the lack of federal policy, many Americans do have access to paid annual leave, even if, on average, it’s significantly less than what many other economically comparable countries have — and workers have unions to thank.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.

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