It’s become a perennial story: Americans are terrible at taking all of their allotted vacation days. That was true again in 2016, with 54% of employees ending the year with unused time off, collectively sacrificing 662 million vacation days, according to a study the U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off released Tuesday.
While more than half of employees forfeited paid time off at year’s end, some bright spots in the survey results hint that Americans may be in the process of reversing their bad vacation habits.
The share of employees who failed to use all their vacation time was actually down one percentage point from 55% in 2015. And the average number of vacation days logged by employees—16.8—was up from 16.2 in 2015 and an all-time low of 16 in 2014 and 2013.
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“Overall Americans are using more vacation days,” says Katie Denis, senior director of Project Time Off who authored the report. “There’s been a slight uptick,” she said, adding that it could be “the beginning” of a more significant turnaround.
The positive trend was driven, in part, by men. Forty-eight percent of them used all their vacation time last year, up three percentage points from 2015. Just 44% of women, meanwhile, took all their allotted days off despite being more likely than men—58% to 49%—to say vacation time is “extremely” important to them.
Overall, employees’ concerns about returning to a mountain of work was the top challenge to taking time off in 2016, followed by the feeling that no one else can do the job.
Those concerns may be unfounded or exaggerated, but workplace leaders fail to say so even though a clear majority of managers agree that vacation improves health and well-being (82%), boosts morale (82%), and alleviates burnout (81%). Two-thirds of employees surveyed said their “company culture is ambivalent, discouraging, or sends mixed messages about time off,” a share that’s virtually unchanged since 2014.
That communication divide “has created a vacuum where negative perceptions thrive,” the study says.
Project Time Off estimates that unused vacation days cost the U.S. economy $236 billion in 2016 because of lost spending, but there are also penalties to pay at the individual level. Employees who forfeit vacation time are lower performers, the study says. Compared to counterparts who take all their vacation time, they are less likely to have been promoted within the last year (23% to 27%), and to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years (78% to 84%). And, unsurprisingly, they are more likely to report being stressed.