Only 23% of employees are taking all of their eligible time off, according to a recent survey by job site Glassdoor. In fact, the average employee takes about half (54%) of his or her vacation time—a number that hasn’t changed much since Glassdoor asked the question in 2014.
And when people do take their vacation days, they aren’t 100% vacationing. Two-thirds (66%) report working when they take vacation, which is higher than the number in 2014 (61%).
The folks at Glassdoor weren’t surprised by the first number, which has remained fairly consistent. But the second number raised some red flags. “More employees are doing work and thinking about work while on vacation,” says Scott Dobroski, Glassdoor community expert. “Technology is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it can allow parents to take off at 3 p.m. and see their child’s soccer game during the week. But it’s a curse because you can take off for vacation time and be sitting on a beautiful beach and log into your inbox.”
With all that technology available, it might seem like it would be easier than ever to take time off. After all, if you’re always reachable, aren’t you reachable from anywhere?
“When we look at the top reasons why people are not taking vacation time, it boils down to fear,” Dobroski says. “The number one reason is that people fear getting behind, or that no one else at their company can do the work, or they feel they can never be disconnected.”
Fear is a factor for Mitch, who is a white collar technical worker. “Even with the economy going well, I still fear a layoff,” says Mitch, 49, who lives in Phoenix. “I want to have all my vacation in the bank so I can get a payout to help cushion the job loss.”
For Jake Tully, who heads up his company’s creative department, vacation brings significant feelings of guilt. “I would feel bad leaving my post for too long and opening the possibility of my team feeling lost or overwhelmed,” says Tully, 25, who lives in Woodland Hills, CA. “I feel incredibly lucky to lead excellent and competent groups of people, but I don’t ever want to put those I manage in a position where my prolonged absence hinders their day-to-day or makes their lives more difficult.”
For others, vacation is a source of income. “Some companies offer their employees the opportunity to cash out their unused vacation days at year end, especially if there is a cap on how many—if any—can be carried over to the next year,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “For my clients who prefer the money, and don’t see time off as essential, this is a nice incentive.”
It can also be tricky to take a vacation at a firm where the culture doesn’t push workers to take a break. “Two-thirds of employees say they hear very little about vacation time from their companies,” says Katie Denis, senior director and lead researcher at Project: Time Off. “That silence creates a vacuum, and we fill that vacuum with our anxieties and assumptions about what our bosses and colleagues could think about our vacation time. If the lines of communication were opened, employees might be surprised to learn that the clear majority of bosses agree that vacation improves an employee’s focus (78%) and alleviates burnout (81%).”
On the other hand, not everyone is eager to sip a cold drink on the beach instead of buckling down in the office. Christine Cummings, who is a VP of marketing at a Boston start-up called All Set, stays because she loves her job. “The thought of leaving for a week or two and not monitoring and optimizing our campaigns and channels makes me very nervous,” she says. “My manager actually encourages the whole team to take vacation since she knows it is important to keep up the high pace and energy level. But I think for me and the rest of the team, it currently really is a matter of commitment and personal involvement.”
For workers looking to take a vacation, it’s incumbent upon them to make sure things will run smoothly in their absence. “It doesn’t mean handing off all your responsibilities, it’s just being smart about planning,” Dobroski says. “Where can people pick up some of the slack, and what can really wait five to seven days while you’re out?”
It’s also on an employee’s shoulders to be aware of crazy times at work. You don’t want to be taking time off at the height of your company’s busiest time.
“Planning is the single-best thing Americans can do for themselves to take their vacation time, but nearly half (48%) of us don’t plan out our time for the year,” Denis says. “Changing that behavior can increase not only the likelihood that you take all your time, but can also make you happier—with your relationships, health, and, yes, even your job.”