Americans lose a whopping 429 million unused vacation days per year

Experts agree that time off makes you not just happier and healthier but more productive on the job.

Jul 1, 2014 @ 5:48 pm EST

The big difference between hoarders and collectors: one of them appreciates what they're piling up.

The U.S. stands alone among developed countries by not mandating vacation time. Of those who get vacation time, four in 10 Americans stockpile them, failing to take all the days they're offered. Those stay-at-work Americans leave an average of 8.1 days unused, according to a 2014 Oxford Economics analysis. That's about 429 million unused days per year.

Those million-plus years are one big gift to corporate America — and a gesture that doesn't do employers or their employees much good. Few cultures can match the U.S. for its ability to stigmatize vacation time. The irony amid the mix of sincere devotion to the workplace, job insecurity and false emblems of productivity (like, say, dropping by the office on a weekend just to say you did): All this obsessing over work can get in the way of getting stuff done. According to managers, HR professionals and behavioral economists, time off makes you not just happier and healthier but more productive on the job.

Skipping a vacation or working longer hours can make sense if you get something for it. Some workers are compensated for unused days, but that's hardly the main reason people skip vacations. Since the recession, the fight for raises and promotions has gotten cutthroat and more workers fret over job security, says Penn State University economics professor Lonnie Golden. Extra time at the office may give you a tiny leg up. One 2013 study found that, for those who work more than 47 hours a week, five extra hours correlate with a 1% increase in yearly wages.

The more you invest in work, though, the less you develop interests and relationships outside the office, Golden says. That can have the perverse effect of spurring people to work even harder, because more of life's rewards come from work. Some of us are a little nuts about work — about 30% of North Americans admit to being workaholics.

Overdoing it at work may be most common in well-paid jobs, as experiments led by University of Chicago business school professor Christopher Hsee suggest. In a lab, students could "earn" chocolates by listening to noises. Or they could relax and listen to music. The catch: they could only eat the chocolates while relaxing, and couldn't bring any home with them. Mr. Hsee found that subjects had an irrational tendency to earn far more chocolates than they gave themselves time to eat. As their "pay rate" went up — in the form of more chocolates per time period — they worked even harder.

That demonstrates a behavioral tendency toward what Mr. Hsee calls “overearning" and "mindless accumulation." At work, many Americans are making themselves miserable in pursuit of treats they'll never get to enjoy.

Luckily, there are signs that some Americans are feeling more comfortable taking time off: a survey released June 24 by Allianz Global Assistance USA found 52% of respondents were confident they'd take a summer vacation this year, up five points from 2013. Maybe that'll give them time to kick back and eat chocolates.

(Bloomberg News)

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