When you can’t turn it off

Oops, we did it again. Americans failed to take an estimated 438 million earned vacation days in 2007.

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Psychologists, demographers and others say we pass over time off for many reasons–everything from an entrenched Puritan work ethic to fear of being seen as reckless slackers relaxing while the economy burns to simply squirreling away time in case we must sit at home awaiting a repair call.

The figure for time left behind comes from Harris Interactive, the polling and research group, which examines trends in unused vacation days for Expedia.com, the Internet travel booker.

Unused vacation also is an issue for human resources managers, responsible for overseeing employee time off–especially in companies in which workers can roll days over to a new year or bank them for a windfall on leaving the firm. Researchers on work-life issues, psychologists and labor lawyers also deal in the subject.

“I ask people at meetings all over the U.S. how many have had unused vacation time in the last year. Generally about a third of the hands will go up,” Judy Randall says. Her North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing tracks and forecasts trends.

“I think it’s an epidemic. We take less of the pitiful amount of vacation time we have than anybody else on the planet. We are genuine to-the-bone workaholics, and even if it’s killing us, we’re still doing it.”

The 438 million days are worth about $60 billion, Harris Interactive says, using average hourly wages for the tabulation. As with many extrapolations, you can argue the figure–the Harris/Expedia poll also says that 35 percent of all American workers, or about 51 million people, scrap vacation days, on average three per person. By that accounting, the total number of unused days would be about 153 million.

The study then multiplies the entire American workforce by three unused days, arriving at 438 million and change, and some time- management experts say they believe that’s closer to reality. Even at the lower 153 million figure, we bypass enough time to fill more than 5,500 lifetimes of 75 years each.

At least we’re doing better than in 2006, when the figure was four unused days per worker. The Harris/Expedia research, among a nationwide cross-section of more than 4,000 American workers, asked about vacation plans for the year.

Averaging the number of days left behind per worker would be meaningful if everyone who works in the U.S. actually got vacations.

But we don’t. About 75 percent of the work force gets paid vacation– an average of 14 days, plus whatever holidays employers grant.

The United States is the only advanced economy in the world without a minute of government-mandated time off. In order to be a member of the European Union, a nation’s employers must offer workers a minimum of 20 days off a year. Several mandate more.

According to “No-Vacation Nation,” a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research about the U.S’ unique place in the balance between work and lifestyle, France requires the most vacation: 30 days, plus a paid holiday.

Among the richest countries, Canada and Japan mandate the fewest days off, not counting the U.S.’s total of zero. The Japanese, who have a word “karoshi” for dying from overwork, get a minimum of 10 days and no nationally mandated holidays. Canadians have the same minimum, but get an additional eight paid holidays.

According to those who research employee benefits, workers in those countries also leave time behind. The Harris/Expedia survey says the French also give up three days, the Spanish, two, and the Germans, one –but they all have more time off, and an incentive to use it because it’s more of a cultural mandate.

Clearly, a number of people who fail to take their time off really like their work. Christiana Brenner, a senior account executive with a Chicago firm, ended 2007 with 11 unused vacation days. Brenner, 26, says she’s “fortunate to have a job I truly enjoy” and even considers fun.

Last year, Cassandra Oryl didn’t give up any of her 10 vacation days and three holidays, but the year before, she traveled for fun to Portugal, and still left days behind at Braithwaite Communications, a public relations firm. “An an agency, we ultimately have to answer to clients,” she says. “So some years, there just isn’t much time for vacation.”

Author: Howard Shapiro