The summer holidays may have drawn to a close, but there’s still time to take advantage of your remaining annual leave – and if you’re living and working in the US, odds are good you still have days left to use. 

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A recent study found that American workers received more paid time off in 2018 than the year prior, but they're earning those days faster than they're taking them, leaving hundreds of millions of days unused. Image: Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

According to recent research from the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics, and Ipsos, America’s employees leave a shocking amount of vacation time on the table: a record 768 million days in 2018, 236 million of which were forfeited completely for $65.5 billion in lost benefits. Some 55% of workers reported they didn’t use all of their allotted time off, which is surprising in and of itself, seeing as how they’re entitled to less on the whole than any other nation of its financial standing. 

Of 21 wealthy countries in Europe, Asia, and Oceania, the United States is the only one that doesn’t mandate any paid vacation or holidays for its workforce, per the revised No-Vacation Nation report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The European Union legally guarantees at least 20 paid vacation days per year, but plenty of countries go above and beyond that. Spain grants its workers the most paid time off, with 39 days of vacation and holidays combined, followed closely by Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Portugal, and Denmark. The UK mandates 28 paid days combined, and Canada grants 19. 

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Many US workers find it hard to achieve a work-life balance, given employers' attitudes toward time off. Image: gradyreese/Getty Images

In the US, on the other hand, paid time off is at the discretion of the employer. New York City is considering a law granting two weeks paid vacation to all workers; though mayor Bill de Blasio has said it will pass this year, the Council has raised concerns, and the bill is currently laid over in committee. “If New York City passes pending legislation, it will be the first city or state in the nation to mandate paid vacation,” CEPR’s Adewale Maye said in a statement.

Two weeks of paid time off is fairly standard across the country, but some companies bundle vacation and sick time together, and some don’t grant paid leave at all, particularly for part-time employees. As a result, there can be an unhealthy culture around taking time off: Workers often feel the need to hoard their days in case of medical emergencies or anticipate retribution if they actually use their allotted time off. “What's underplayed in the States is the fear factor,” one former Wall Streeter told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “It’s frowned upon to take the vacation time that one's entitled to, and read between the lines: If you take it and the guy sitting next to you doesn't, your position may well be a little less secure.”

In fact, of the 1025 full-time employees surveyed for the U.S. Travel Association’s study, 13% and 16% gave “too hard to get away from work” as the primary and secondary reasons they didn’t travel more, citing lack of coverage, heavy workloads, and worries that vacation would make them look less dedicated. Only cost was considered a higher barrier, with an overwhelming 52% of respondents ticking that box. 

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Disconnecting from work can actually make employees more productive and less susceptible to burnout. Image: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

“It’s an unfortunate truth that cost is the top barrier to travel. Despite the financial challenges of traveling, there are affordable alternatives to explore America—whether it’s a drive up the coast or a day trip to a neighboring town," U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement. “When I see how many vacation days went unused, I don’t just see a number – I see 768 million missed opportunities to recharge, experience something new and connect with family and friends."

And while many aren’t supportive, some US employers do get it. “For the past 10 years, we’ve had an unlimited vacation-day policy, purposely because I want people to try to get that work-life balance,” one New Jersey manager told WNYC. Even so, he said, he’s found that many people are reluctant to take even two weeks off throughout the course of the year, so he’s taken to encouraging employees to add extra vacation days around company travel and padding established holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July with additional time off.

Of course, it would be nice if such measures weren’t necessary and the culture encouraged downtime instead of a constant go-go-go mentality. “I don't think people are taking the days off that they need to fully rest and enjoy those times with your family,” the New Jersey caller said. “You become even a better employee when you do have that time to just disconnect.”

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