Many Feel Trapped by Work

John de Graaf is the executive director of Take Back Your Time, an organization promoting better work-life balance.

NEW YORK TIMES - UPDATED SEPTEMBER 5, 2014, 4:00 PM

It's not by accident that the United States has been called the "no vacation nation". Vacations in the U.S. are among the shortest in the world, and a quarter of American workers get no paid vacation leave at all. Then, to add insult to injury, surveys find that 40 percent of us leave vacation days unused – three to seven days on average. Why do we do it?

It's up to business leaders to see the value of vacations for their employees, give them time off and encourage them to take it.

First, there is fear. In tough economic times, especially during the recent recession, many people sense that they will be seen as slackers, unwilling to give 100 percent to their jobs. They worry about being first on the list if new layoffs come.

Secondly, many workers tell me time off just isn't worth it. Sure, vacations are fun, but so much work piles up at the office while they are gone, they are already stressing about the upcoming load before their vacations have ended. Yes, they were stressed before they left, but now the feeling has doubled. No one has been assigned to replace them while they are gone. By contrast, Europeans cross-train employees so they can pick up for each other during holidays.

Finally, some employers won't even let workers take the time they are owed. In Jacksonville, Fla., a hotel clerk told me her vacation had been cancelled for seven years in a row because the company had no one to replace her. When I asked how they could do that given her contract, she said they simply paid her extra. She needed the time even more than the money, she said. But the choice was not hers.

A new Nielsen poll commissioned by Diamond Resorts International® finds that 71 percent of American workers who regularly take vacations are satisfied with their jobs. Among those who don't, only 46 percent are satisfied. It's up to business leaders to see the value of vacations for their employees, give them time off and encourage them to take it.