Americans are using less vacation time: Last year, 222 million vacation days were lost because they couldn’t be rolled over, paid out or banked.

Share story

Use it or lose it. If you’re like many American workers, you are throwing away your paid time off.

According to Project: Time Off, an organization that encourages use of vacation time, the U.S. workplace is rife with “work martyrs.”

Maybe you’re one. You haven’t taken your eligible vacations. Why? Maybe your boss sends mixed signals about missing work. Maybe you’re caught up in your daily to-do list and haven’t planned anything. Maybe you’d simply rather work.

An online survey of 5,641 workers, conducted for Project: Time Off via the GFK KnowledgePanel with data interpretation by Oxford Economics, found that since 2000, there has been a steady decline in vacation use.

According to the report, Americans’ vacation time peaked at 20.3 days a year in 1983 and held somewhat steady until the decline began. Since 2000, nearly a full week of annual time off was shaved, with vacation use settling at 16.2 days in 2015.

It bears mentioning that paid vacation is a pipe dream for millions of workers who sacrifice pay every day they take off from work. It’s no surprise that vacations are rare to nonexistent for them because they simply need the money and the job security they get from showing up to work every day.

But for those workers who have paid time off, a majority — 55 percent — didn’t use all their vacation last year. These “under-vacationed Americans left a total 658 million vacation days unused,” the report said, “far exceeding the previous estimate of 429 million unused days.”

Of the 658 million unused vacation days, 222 million were lost because they couldn’t be rolled over, paid out or banked for any other benefit, the organization reported.

There are countless reasons why we keep noses to the grindstone, but health advocates repeatedly warn that we need breaks to maintain physical and emotional health. Everyone needs downtime, including self-professed workaholics. It’s like sleeping — it’s recovery time from job-related stress.

Trying to get a bead on why vacations are unused, the survey found these barriers:

—Employees fear returning to a mountain of work.

—No one else can do their jobs.

—It’s harder to take time off the higher you get in the organization.

—Employees want to show dedication to their employers.

—Employees don’t want to be seen as replaceable.

—Employees sense lack of time-off support from their bosses or co-workers.

These are danger signals. They forecast burnout. They pinpoint a lack of communication. They paint a “do more with less” culture. Most of all, the survey sponsors say, they indicate a lack of planning.

The reality is that the burden is on you to circle vacation dates on your calendar. And then take them as planned.

Don’t wait for an invitation to take a break. Do it for yourself.

Diane Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist at The Kansas City Star. Email her at