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A World Without Vacation

Americans left 705 million vacation days unused last year. The impact of our vacation deficit goes beyond dollars and may prove difficult to make up.

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Did you take a vacation last year?

There’s a one in four chance the answer is no. In fact, 24 percent of Americans report not taking a vacation in a year or more.

While this may be shocking, it shouldn’t be. The United States is climbing out of a massive vacation deficit. From 1978 to 2000, Americans lived the work-hard, play-hard mantra taking an average 20.3 days of vacation annually. The new millennium saw a precipitous decline in vacation usage, bottoming out at 16.0 days in 2014.

Americans have slowly started to turn this decline around, taking 17.2 vacation days last year. But unfortunately, even with this progress, Americans left 705 million vacation days unused in 2017.

The economic impact of vacation is far-reaching. The millions of days that went unused represent a $255 billion lost opportunity and 1.9 million jobs that the American economy is not capturing. The unused vacation days from 2017 alone represent a 1 percent increase to the U.S. economy.

The value of the days goes far beyond dollars for individuals and their companies. At the U.S. Travel Association, we wanted to ensure we were practicing what we preach. Unfortunately, an analysis of our vacation usage a few years ago gave us a failing grade. Just 19 percent of my staff used all their vacation days, which is far below the national average. To correct this, we instituted an incentive program to encourage employees to use their vacation time, and leaders in the organization made a point of talking about the importance of taking a break. In a single year, we increased to 91 percent of the staff using all their vacation time—and engagement and productivity skyrocketed.

We were also able to reduce our vacation liability, comprised of the rolled-over days that we would otherwise have to pay out to departing employees. In the first year, we reduced the liability by more than the cost of the incentive program. There is never a guarantee the math will work out, but the vacation culture we have cultivated has produced a more energized, dedicated team, and I don’t need a formal equation to know that benefits the bottom line.

Transforming our vacation culture has paid off in dividends. Unfortunately, we are the exception to the rule. More than six in 10 (62 percent) employees say their company culture is discouraging or says nothing about vacation. That silence is deafening.

For the individual, the cost of skipping vacation is enormous—particularly for those not taking time to travel. Americans who use most of their time off to travel are happier, healthier, less stressed and more likely to have been recently promoted. Yet workers use less than half of the vacation time they take—just eight days on average—to travel.

Our travel deficit is creating a void that work alone cannot fill. Those extremely under-vacationed Americans who have not taken a vacation in more than a year admit that they’re missing out on the opportunity to relax and reduce stress (49 percent), on experiencing fun, excitement and adventure (47 percent) and losing opportunities to make memories (40 percent).

It’s that last one—memories—that truly matters. They are what make up our family stories. The No. 1 reason Americans travel is the opportunity to see their child excited about an experience. The feeling is mutual: six in 10 kids want to spend quality time with their parents on vacation. But kids are more attuned to our “work martyr” behavior than you may think. The majority (75 percent) of kids say that their parent is unable to stop working when they are off the clock.

My daughter taught me this the hard way. Most of my career, I’ve spent my days catching planes, traversing from meeting to meeting, through one time zone and on to the next. I once came home between trips right around the holidays, and as I was getting ready for an event that night, she bounced into the room to say hello. She looked up at me with big eyes, and asked, “Daddy, are you going to be home for Christmas?” My heart sank. I suddenly realized the message I was sending without ever intending it.

What message are you sending to the people who matter to you? Our collective vacation deprivation shortchanges the time we invest in our personal relationships, undermines our performance at work and threatens our health and well-being.

It’s time to reclaim our time and make some new memories. Missing out is no longer an option. We need to make sure a world without vacation is hyperbole, not our reality.

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