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Why we take so little vacation

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When the tech company HubSpot grew to 200 employees about four years ago, founder Dharmesh Shah started to consider how to implement a vacation policy.

“The concept of this 9-to-5 job where you’re working Monday through Friday and you take four weeks or six weeks of vacation, doesn’t really fit with the way modern people work and live anymore,” Shah says. 

Shah wondered: If workers are working at all hours and he’s not keeping track of those hours, then why should he keep track of their hours off? So HubSpot decided to try a different kind of vacation policy  an unlimited one. Shah says initially there was concern that workers would abuse the policy. But that’s not what happened.

“There was a tendency, I think, for people not to take as much as they should have,” Shah says, adding that the company had to ask employees to take at least two weeks a year. 

HubSpot employees aren’t alone. American workers aren’t taking time off. They left some $52 billion in vacation time unused last year, according to the research firm Oxford Economics. As recently as 2000, workers used an average of 20 days of vacation. In 2013, it was 16 days. 

Not only are we taking fewer days off, we are also far less likely to vacation a week or more at a time.

“The full-week vacation has been on a consistent decline really since the late ’70s,” says Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics. 

Sacks says one big reason for all of these dismal numbers is employee perception “that taking all of their time off was at best not encouraged by their superiors; that it would not go well for them, in terms of their career track.”

Workers fear that they may seem dispensable if they are gone for too long. But that may be the opposite of what HR professionals want, says Evren Esen, who directs survey programs for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Esen says that HR reps want workers to take time off, because that’s believed to be beneficial for companies. Workers “tend to see higher levels of satisfaction, and be more productive on the job and perform better,” if they take time off and recharge, Esen says. 

It comes down to company culture. If workers see their bosses taking time off, they’re more likely to do so themselves, Esen says. And companies that limit the amount of holiday time that can be rolled over from year to year saw a dramatic increase in workers’ utilization of paid time off.

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