The average number of vacation days taken by the U.S. workforce began a precipitous decline around the turn of the century, coinciding roughly around the rise in ubiquity of Windows 98, desktop browser integration, AOL, and broadband access.

Data from the U.S. Travel Association show Americans taking 20.3 vacation days annually from 1976 to 2000. From 2001 to 2013, there’s a steep drop to 16 days, which represents what U.S. Travel calls the “Lost Week.”

Is there a correlation between the birth of widespread Internet adoption and people being too stressed, overworked and afraid to use all of their paid time off? Ex-Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg suggests there might be a relationship between digital compulsion and the inability to extricate our personal lives from our professional lives, further exacerbated by the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

Zuckerberg and Arianna Huffington headlined the list of speakers during The Upside of Downtime Forum in New York this week, hosted by U.S. Travel as part of its ongoing Project: Time Off campaign. The initiative is an effort to drive incremental tourism spending by advocating for Americans to use all of their paid vacation time.

The speakers approached the topic from many different angles, but each one alluded to how Americans are overworked and over-connected.

“There’s no such thing really as work/life balance anymore because gone are the days when you used to switch off your desktop computer and go home to your life,” said Zuckerberg during a Q&A with Fast Company editor Amy Farley. “Now if you have a smartphone, your job, your work, all of your contacts come with you. So I think it’s more important than ever for us to think about personal boundaries and a tech/life balance, versus work/life balance.”

Work/life balance continues to grow as a national discussion following the recent story about Amazon’s brutal work culture, which the forum audience and speakers brought up numerous times during the day. Farley also mentioned last week’s New York Times story, A Toxic Work World, which dissects today’s “culture of overwork.”

The tech/life storyline, meanwhile, is only beginning to gain prominence. Huffington has written extensively over the last few years about the value of quality rest by disconnecting from devices and managing tech dependency, after she collapsed from exhaustion in 2007 and broke her cheek falling down on her desk. Her primary message these days is: “Burnout as the road to success is no longer valid.”

“We really need to separate this incredible idealization of the individual who never needs downtime, because there’s a lot in our culture that celebrates that,” Huffington said. “We need to understand the power of teams, [and] we need to stop connecting being busy with being effective. The greatest amount of creativity and productivity comes after we’re fully recharged. That’s what we really need to discover.”

Farley wondered how this celebration of workaholics can be snuffed out in corporate America. She said, “Work martyrdom hero worship” is especially challenging for mothers and primary caregivers who have to make difficult decisions between the family and workplace on a weekly basis, often without clear guidelines from corporate managers.

Farley asked Zuckerberg how American companies like Amazon can kill their internal culture of romance around work martyrs.

“We need to do a better job of showing businesses the data of how their bottom lines are affected by giving their employees time off,” said Zuckerberg.

US Travel 2

Source: U.S. Travel

The Liability of Lost Vacations

According to the U.S. Travel-sponsored study by Oxford Economics in March 2015 — The Hidden Costs of Unused Leave: Balancing Employee Needs with Business — more than $224 billion in accumulated vacation time sits on American businesses’ balance sheets. Moreover, that balance jumped $65 billion just in 2014.

Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation & benefits at the Society for Human Resource (SHRM) Managers, addressed those hidden costs at the forum. He cited concrete metrics, which have the greatest chance of impacting real change in how companies shift their communications around vacation policies.

Elliott opened by saying the majority of HR professionals see vacations as “extremely important” toward maintaining morale, wellness, high levels of performance and lower turnover. And yet, according to SHRM data, more than 30% of employees report that their employers never encourage or discourage leave.

“I always ask myself as a benefits manager, knowing that vacation is an accrued benefit, why would we want to keep that on our books?” asked Elliott. Meaning, if companies roll over unused paid vacation time year-over-year for each employee, then the company is required to pay out a large lump sum when the employee leaves.

That, he suggested, provides an economic incentive for companies to get people out the door during their vacation time, but too many HR managers at larger companies don’t feel the effort is worth it. All told, four out of 10 U.S. employees in 2014 didn’t take their full vacation time, resulting in 429 million days off that no one took off.

More companies, however, are creating “use it or lose it” policies with no vacation time rollover benefits, where employees are then more self-disciplined and encouraged to use their vacation days by the end of the year.

Adding to the challenges, Elliott said, “Close to one in five managers surveyed, or 17% of them, consider employees who take all of their leave as less dedicated, which impacts their performance review, which impacts their morale, which increases turnover.”

That is at the heart of why so many Americans don’t take all of their vacation time anymore — fear.

According to U.S. Travel Association research, 40% of workers are less likely to take their vacation time due to a fear of returning to a mountain of work, while 35% fear that nobody else can do their job properly, and 22% fear that they will be viewed as replaceable.

“When you talk to corporate managers and HR sources, they’re behind this because they want all of the creativity and the best of the person they hired,” said Katie Denis, senior program director of Project: Time Off. “But employees don’t know that because no one’s talking about that. We have a culture of silence that creates this fear.”

MasterCard Case Study

Those 429 million unused vacation days in 2014 across America works out to 3.2 days per person. That’s time that no one can ever get back again.

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” says the young child in MasterCard’s recently updated video campaign supporting Project: Time Off.

Susan Kunreuther, executive VP of global total rewards at MasterCard, spoke at the forum and said her company is just as much a part of the problem. Before the development of the campaign, MasterCard employees were leaving an average of 4.2 vacation days on the table every year, a full one point over the national average.

“We took it to heart,” said Kunreuther. “We said before we take this externally to all of our customers, we need to bring this in-house…. We need to make sure our employees get connected to the ‘Priceless Possibilities’ we’re going to be selling to our customers.”

Toward that end, MasterCard developed an internal promotion around the theme of “Enabling the whole you at work and outside of work” to get its employees to take more time off.

The MasterCard HR team sent multiple personalized messages to all employees to remind them how many vacation days they had left throughout the year. They created contests asking employees to submit their vacation photos, which were awarded prizes and shared around the company. MasterCard also developed a new management training program to show managers how to better encourage employees to spend more time with their friends and family.

“And then of course we used a lot of social media, and this was big,” said Kunreuther. “We made it OK for you to get on social media and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take that one more day’… and that became the talk of the company.”

In one year, the average of unused paid time at MasterCard decreased from 4.2 to 3.9 days, which Kunreuther agrees might seem like a small drop. However, she said the internal campaign will continue, and she suggested that’s a decent start for a company with more than 5,000 U.S. employees, Summing up, she said, “We shifted the culture by 7%.”

At the end of the forum, Project: TIme Off managing director Gary Oster described the U.S. Travel initiative as “a national movement we’re trying to begin.” After listening to everyone speak, there’s clearly a bigger narrative at play here than an extra long weekend of travel. There just needs to be a more of a focus on the economic benefits for companies when employees take full advantage of their work benefits. That will drive real change in corporate America.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, when 56K dial-up speeds changed everything, work now follows us wherever we go. But people shouldn’t be so afraid to leave their work at work when they want, especially when they’re entitled to do so.

Tags: vacations
Photo Credit: Former Facebook executive Randi Zuckerberg (left) and Fast Company's Amy Farley discuss the downside of work martyrdom hero worship. Skift