It's bad enough that U.S. workers get less paid vacation than their counterparts around the world, but many are afraid to take all the time off employers provide. The situation has become so glaring that the U.S. travel industry is actually starting a promotional effort to encourage people to take vacation.
According to Oxford Economics data cited by the U.S. Travel Association, last year Americans failed to use 429 million days of earned leave, equaling about three days per worker. By not taking a break, these workers cost the U.S. economy $160 billion in spending that could support 1.2 million jobs in a myriad of industries including manufacturing, retail and transportation.
"This is an issue that goes well beyond the travel industry," said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow in a press release. "Our initiative is simple and straightforward: Americans aren't using all the days off they are entitled to and we have to change that."
The industry is beginning what it calls a "comprehensive media campaign" that includes social media and targeted advertising to convince workers to take time off. The campaign aims to spark a "national discussion." However, convincing America's already stressed-out workers to step away from their cubicles may not be as easy of a sell as some may expect.
Indeed, roughly one in three workers say they don't take vacations because they have too much work to do, according to U.S. Travel. They have lots of reasons for feeling that way. First, though the unemployment rate recently fell to a five-year low of 6.4 percent, many workers remain shell-shocked from the massive layoffs of the Great Recession. Taking a vacation is the last thing many people want to do.
"It's more about insecurity than guilt," said Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist at San Francisco State University, adding that workers are worried that if they go on vacation, their bosses might see they can get along without them. "In our country there's this macho attitude that I can tough it out. This is especially pertinent to people moving up the corporate hierarchy. They want to show the boss that they're tough."
Mark Frame, an organizational psychologist affiliated with Middle Tennessee State University, echoes this view.
"If you're in a job that you enjoy, the prospects of taking a week or two off from work could be frightening," he said, adding that people are worried about signaling to their employers that they don't take their jobs seriously.
Experts point out that going on vacation is good for both employer and employee. More than three-quarters of human resource professionals find that workers who take time off are more productive and experience higher levels of job satisfaction. Some companies insist that workers take vacations, while others encourage it more subtly by not allowing workers to roll over their unused days.
The U.S. is the only developed country where workers aren't entitled by law to paid time off. In fact, about 25 percent of workers don't have any vacation benefit. Workers in the European Union are legally entitled to take at least 20 paid vacation days annually, while some take 25 and even 30 days off. Canada and Japan guarantee at least 10 days.
Some people attribute the difference in vacation policies between the U.S. and the rest of the world to cultural differences, an argument John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research doesn't buy. He sees it as sign of economic insecurity.
"Jobs are coming back so slowly," he said, "that people are continuing to look over their shoulder." Now, though, they're also likely to see an ad campaign encouraging them to take whatever vacation time they're entitled to.