Why it's so hard for US workers to ask for time off

Share on Linkedin
(Credit: Getty Images)
US workers want more holiday – yet they still don’t take all of their paid leave. What’s keeping them at their desks?

Taking paid days off has never been more important. Amid the pandemic, concerns for mental health and burnout have peaked; many workers are reassessing their work-life balance, and trying to take a break to regroup. Yet somehow, many still struggle to ask for time off work.

The amount of paid holiday workers use around the world varies, but US workers seem to be some of the most reluctant to take paid leave. American workers generally get less paid leave than their European counterparts (there’s no national statutory minimum in the US). Yet according to one 2017 survey, the average US worker said they had taken just about half (54%) of their paid time off in the past 12 months. Things appear to be getting worse, not better; in 2018, one report showed, American workers failed to use 768 million days of paid time off – a 9% increase from 2017.

It’s clear US workers do want more time off, however; a 2019 study showed one in three Americans would take a pay cut to get unlimited vacation days. Employers have been responding to this: according to jobs site Indeed, job postings with unlimited time off rose by 178% from May 2015 to May 2019. Yet research shows that even in cases where workers can take as much paid holiday as they want, they tend take less holiday than employees with a fixed number of days.

If all signs are pointing towards paid time off being needed and encouraged, why are so many US workers still failing to take all their leave? The answer lies in a complex mix of professional pressures and cultural mores that combine to keep US workers pinned to their desks – even if they’d really rather not be there.  

The role of corporate culture

Around the world, a key determinant in whether employees feel confident taking all their paid leave is corporate culture. Managers modelling healthy behaviours will empower workers to take leave, while managers rewarding presenteeism will deter them.

In very competitive workplaces, employees who take leave fear being treated badly or losing out on future opportunities. A 2018 study showed one of the biggest reasons US workers didn’t take time off was fear of being seen as replaceable.

Many US workers are worried about seeming uncommitted or like a 'slacker' if they aren't at their desks (Credit: Getty Images)

Many US workers are worried about seeming uncommitted or like a 'slacker' if they aren't at their desks (Credit: Getty Images)

Christie Engler, director of HR for Consolidated Employer Services, an HR solutions firm based in Powell, Ohio, says, “they may be snubbed or may be looked down upon by their boss and the others in the office as well. I have seen leaders make other people feel terrible about taking time off.”

Engler points out this culture is markedly different in the public sector, where teachers for example, have fixed holidays and strong unions. Yet in the private sector, the threat is real. The US travel association found that 28% of people didn't take vacation days in 2014 purely to demonstrate dedication to their job and not be seen as a “slacker”. “Culturally in America, we equate taking time off as quitting or not having high work ethic,” says Joey Price, CEO of an HR consultancy based in Baltimore, US. “There is stigma around the idea of not working.”

This fear of bosses perceiving workers as inadequately committed to the job is so prevalent it can even lead employees to mislead their employers rather than ask for time off directly. In 2019, one study of US workers showed that more than one in three respondents admitted pretending to be sick to get a day off, and 27% opted for “making up a random story” rather than asking for the time in advance.

‘You have to hustle’ 

Even if a company doesn’t deter taking leave, there are many workplaces where “working as much as possible is worn as a badge of honour”, says Engler.

A 2019 study showed that US conservatives and liberals alike both believed equally in the importance of working hard to achieve success. Pressure to perform is not just a moral expectation; overwhelmingly, workers in the US believe that turning in an “excellent performance” is the best way to get a raise. This can easily lead to overwork – something Michael Komie, a psychoanalyst and professor in clinical psychology in Chicago, describes as a “public health issue” in the US.  

28% of people didn't take vacation days in 2014 purely to demonstrate dedication to their job and not be seen as a ‘slacker’

In some workplaces, clocking up your mandated hours is just the start. Research shows being a constant presence in the workplace and spending “passive face time” with colleagues during and outside regular work hours can make workers more likely to be seen as dependable and committed. Price says this creates a dynamic where “you have to hustle, you have to work late hours, you have to be in the building so your boss can see that you're working”.

In this context, the number of vacation days a worker has in their contract may not matter. In fact, studies have showed American workers on unlimited holiday plans sometimes take fewer days than those on traditional plans if the company does not facilitate a culture that encourages or requires employees to take vacation time. Some critics believe that unlimited PTO actually deters workers from taking leave, because the lack of formal rules around how many days to take can leave a vacuum that is easily filled by pressure to stay at work.

Too lean, too mean?

Workers may also be up against entrenched work practices that don’t easily allow for time off.

Companies can be leanly staffed, meaning colleagues can’t cover a worker’s absence due to their own workload or don’t have the knowledge to do so. In this case, taking time off means returning to a mound of tasks left undone or burdening colleagues with extra work. 

This kind of lean model is a hangover from a traditional American work ideal, says Price. “We are still attempting to apply the management principles that were effective in the era of industry and assembly lines in the age of the knowledge worker. The work system is not designed for people to take days off, and the end result that people see when a worker takes time off is that their department is behind.” This leads some to feel that taking time off will reflect so badly on them or their team that it just isn’t worth it. “The stress, the guilt or the shame people feel around time off is very real. So, they typically suck it up and power through,” says Price. 

Even when US workers do manage to take holiday, many report working or answering messages while they're away (Credit: Getty Images)

Even when US workers do manage to take holiday, many report working or answering messages while they're away (Credit: Getty Images)

Feeling tied to your desk can even lead some workers to feel indispensable. “The employee has the fantasy that they are so important to what they do that they'll be letting the employer down if they are not there,” explains Komie. Few workers are so uniquely talented or knowledgeable that only they can perform their role, but this fantasy can intersect with reality when poor work design means that workflow stops when a particular employee is absent because no one can cover their tasks.

One knock-on effect is, if they do manage to take leave, work follows most Americans out of the office. A 2017 study showed 66% of US workers reported working on vacation, with 29% responding to requests from colleagues, and 25% to requests from their boss.

No wonder, then, that rather than helping relieve stress, “in America, being away from work can produce anxiety”, says Komie.

‘Healthier conversations’

Right now, the Great Resignation is forcing companies to rethink how they retain workers – but workers still do not seem to be prioritising paid time off (PTO). A 2021 study into worker satisfaction showed while some workers were dissatisfied with the amount of PTO they received, they were unhappier about stress at work, pay, retirement and health benefits, and promotion chances.

Price believes companies are responding to some worker demands – flexible work, for example – because workplace changes enforced during the health crisis have made them feel like a realistic prospect. Meanwhile, the conversation about paid time off hasn’t gained so much traction, even though demand is starting to grow.

The stress, the guilt or the shame people feel around time off is very real. So, they typically suck it up and power through – Joey Price

Price has recently introduced unlimited PTO in his company, along with a “work system to support absence” in order to retain and attract top talent. On a practical level, this means making sure at least two staff members have knowledge of every project, forward planning to accommodate absence, and making clients aware that time off is factored into project deadlines. But more than anything, he says employees need to feel supported in taking time off instead of worried they will be penalised.

“The first step is to have healthier conversations around days off so that people don't feel the stigma,” he says. This starts with employers sending a clear message: “It is OK to take a day off. We will not judge you negatively for it.”

There is also hope that potential legislation around paid time off and increased awareness of the mental health risks of overwork could catalyse change. “There's plenty of research to show that we need time off, we need good mental health and work systems that are more empathetic lead to a more productive workplace culture,” adds Price.

Until this message becomes widespread, employees in the US who want to spend less time at work may have to seek out workplaces in which taking time off doesn’t feel like such a big ask. It’s a lesson workers all over the world may as well be conscious of, too, even if there’s less pressure to forego holiday in some places – after all, everyone needs a break.