Why don’t Americans take more time off?

Man laying in rowboat on tranquil lake
Photograph by Getty Images

No doubt about it, Europeans think we’re crazy. Compared to people living in France, Germany, and Scandinavia, who routinely take as much as six weeks off annually, U.S. employees typically leave about 429 million paid vacation days on the table every year.

It’s a little odd when you consider that, according to a new survey by staffing firm The Creative Group, about 40% of executives think employees would be more productive if they took more vacations, while only 9% think productivity would “decrease significantly.” Yet among the same senior managers, 72% say that, if their companies offered unlimited vacation days, they wouldn’t use any more than they already do. More than half (56%) of employees say they wouldn’t, either.

Anyone who has ever come back from the beach to an overloaded inbox can attest that it’s the opposite of relaxing. “The fact is, the work still has to get done,” notes Creative Group executive director Diane Domeyer. “For many people, just the thought of being out of the office can be stressful, because they worry about the amount of work that will pile up while they’re away.”

People also worry that they may need to use time away from the office for, say, a family emergency or some other unforeseeable event. About 40% of employees in a separate poll, by Creative Group parent company Robert Half International, said they’re “saving vacation time in case they need it” for some future purpose other than unwinding.

One thing is clear: Hardly anyone blames the boss. A scant 3% of employees said they can’t get away because their manager would frown on it. Still, Domeyer thinks leaders need to do more to encourage the people who report to them to get out there and have more fun. Paid vacations are, after all, not only part of employees’ compensation, they’re also a proven way to stave off burnout and refresh creativity.

Her prescription for managers (you’re going to like this, we promise): Take more of your own vacation time, or even—gasp—every last day off you’re entitled to, and make sure people know you’re doing it. In this as in so much else, Domeyer says, “managers should lead by example.” Hear, hear.

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