4 in 10 Workers Don't Use Their Paid Time Off. That Could Hit Their Bank Balances

I worked in Japan for a couple of years and one of the many culture shocks I experienced was people’s attitude toward vacation. “I feel uncomfortable taking days off because nobody else does,” one colleague told me. Another proudly explained that his grandfather had only taken a couple of vacation days in his whole career.

Japan is extreme, but the same thing happens in many countries, including the U.S. A recent survey by Pew Research showed that around 46% of the American workers who receive paid time off don’t use all of it. That’s a lot — particularly as it isn’t good for employees or companies.

How skipping vacations can hit your bank balance and your health

Some people feel that they get more done by not using their time off. The trouble is, the opposite can also be true. Imagine a woodcutter working harder and harder with a saw that’s getting more and more blunt. Working more hours often does not increase productivity. The woodcutter needs to stop and sharpen the saw (or take a vacation). Afterward, he or she will get more done with less effort.

Overworking means you’re more likely to suffer from stress, burnout, and, ultimately, not perform to your full potential. That can impact your bank account directly in terms of medical costs, and indirectly in terms of your career progression. I know it sounds counterintuitive. After all, surely giving your employer more of your time would build job security?

Working hard is important if you want to get a promotion, score a pay raise, and have good relations with your colleagues. However, there’s a line. Overworking can also make you less productive. Harvard Business Review cited an Ernst & Young study that showed people’s year-end performance improved by 8% for every 10 hours of vacation time they took.

We’ve all had brain-fogged days when we’re too tired to think straight. If you don’t take breaks and holidays, you’ll likely have more of them. When you’re exhausted it’s also harder to deal with tricky situations with co-workers. You’re also more likely to make mistakes. As psychologist, Adam Borland, told the Cleveland Clinic, “It’s like a car trying to run with a very limited amount of gas in the tank.

Productivity aside, there are serious health issues to consider. A study by the World Health Organization showed that people who work more than 55 hours a week are more at risk of heart disease and stroke. Going back to my experiences in Japan: one colleague was hospitalized with severe back problems that came directly from spending too much time at his desk. Depending on your medical insurance, the cost of treating mental and physical health issues can really add up. If one way to avoid those issues is to take and enjoy your paid leave, some might describe it as a win-win.

Why workers don’t use their time off

When you get caught up in the day-to-day meetings and to-do lists, it’s easy to put off the non-urgent but important things like booking vacations or medical check-ups. Indeed, the Pew survey found people had many reasons not to use all their paid time off:

  • Felt they didn’t need it (52%)
  • Worried they might fall behind (49%)
  • Felt bad about co-workers taking on extra work (43%)
  • Thought it might harm promotion chances (19%)
  • Worried they might lose their job (16%)
  • Discouraged by manager/supervisor (12%)

If you’re using any of the reasons above to put off booking time off, perhaps it’s time to reconsider. That doesn’t mean you have to plan your next vacation the minute you finish this article. (Especially if you don’t have cash in your savings account to do so.) But at least think about how you can build more breaks into your daily routine — perhaps by fitting in regular exercise, or even by going for a short walk on your lunch break.

If you are overdue for a holiday and worry about burdening your co-workers, bear in mind they’d have to pick up even more slack if you call in sick. And you likely cover for some of them when they take vacation time too. Ultimately, it isn’t your responsibility to shield your colleagues from that extra work — the biggest responsibility you have is to yourself and your well-being.

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