For most workers, holiday leave is something to look forward to — a chance to take a break from the daily grind and get away from deadlines, projects, and stress.
In the UK, employees who work five days a week are entitled to a statutory minimum of 5.6 weeks or 28 days of paid annual leave, including bank holidays and public holidays. Those working part-time are entitled to the same level of holiday pro rata, which is currently 5.6 times your usual working week.
However, many people aren’t taking days off — despite having paid holiday leave. According to a survey of 2,000 working adults by British Airways (IAG.L), a third did not use up all of their annual leave in 2017, losing an average of four days each.
Brits have an average of 21 days annual leave a year, but many feel guilty about taking time off — with more than a third afraid to take a two-week holiday due to work stigma.
The problem is even more pronounced in the US. In 2018, workers in the United States left a record number of vacation days on the table, equating to billions in lost benefits, according to research from the US Travel Association, Oxford Economics, and Ipsos. A total of 768 million days went unused and of those, 236 million were completely forfeited — equating to $65.5bn (£50.2bn) in lost benefits.
Most people are aware of the benefits associated with taking time off. Not only does it reduce stress and anxiety and improve wellbeing, taking regulars breaks allows us to stay engaged, feel refreshed, and improve productivity.
“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,” US Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement.
So why are we so bad at detaching ourselves from our jobs?
One of the key issues — dubbed “holiday guilt” or “vacation guilt” — is to blame. Despite being allocated paid holidays, some of us continue to beat ourselves up over the fact that we’re ditching our duties for a few days of rest and so avoid taking vacations altogether.
Holiday guilt can be attributed to various factors, including the belief that time away from work could have a negative lasting impact on your career. For those married to their jobs, it can be hard to relinquish control over projects and assignments which may be given to other colleagues while you’re on holiday.
The fear of missing out on opportunities also plays a part. In a survey of more than 1,200 full-time American employees, 14% of those questioned said they believed that not using their holiday time increased their chances for advancement.
According to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) report, workers also feel compelled to work longer hours and take less time off due to the challenging economic climate. Despite employees across the UK already working some of the longest hours in western Europe, many feel compelled to forgo holidays due to heavy workloads, tight deadlines, and the fear of losing their job.
Despite wider conversations about worker wellbeing and employee health, some companies still push their staff to avoid taking vacations. And when they do take leave of the office, many workers are still expected to be in touch via email or by phone — meaning they rarely get away from work.
Age also plays a part in the likelihood of workers taking time off. Research by the US Travel Association has found older Americans tend to take more time off than younger age groups, with around one-third of baby boomers (35%) and Gen X (31%) reported taking 10-19 days in 2018, compared to only one in five Millennials (21%).
There are several ways to avoid feeling guilty or worried about taking time off. Firstly, giving your manager plenty of notice when booking a holiday is essential. Not only will it allow you to tie up any loose ends before you head out of the office, your boss will be able to prepare for your absence — leaving them less likely to contact you while you are away.
Try not to focus on what you’ll be missing out on at work, but rather what you’ll be experiencing while you are away. Reading books on a beach, seeing friends or travelling to new places are all just as important as work.
It’s also important to remind yourself of the benefits of taking a break every so often. Not only will you feel better physically and mentally, you’re more likely to come back feeling productive — something your boss will appreciate too.