Workers, lacking time or money, leave vacation days unused

Tisa L. Silver-Canady, who counsels University of Maryland, Baltimore students about loan repayments and runs other financial education programs at the school, realized toward the end of last year that she had not used about a third of her vacation time.

Last year, the assistant director of financial eduction and wellness in the university's office of student financial assistance and education took two brief trips, one for work, the other a vacation that included a conference related to her job. And she took two days off to move to a new house. But she got busy at work with deadlines.

"I didn't have any huge plans, so I thought, 'Why waste it?' " Silver-Canady said. "You think about those emergencies and those 'what-ifs,' and something is telling you to hold on just in case."

Breaking away from work to take vacation can be one of the toughest parts of the job for many employees. That's one reason most workers didn't take all the time they had coming last year, according to one survey.

A whopping 70 percent of employees polled by Right Management in November and December said they did not take all the vacation due them in 2012. A survey last year by Expedia showed that Americans earn fewer vacation days than workers in most countries — 12 days on average — but still leave two days unused.

The trend that became more prevalent during the recession appears to be spilling over into the recovery.

When companies were laying off people in greater numbers and requiring more of fewer workers, many workers were reluctant or unable to take time off, said Katherine Ponds, a regional vice president and practice leader for Right Management, a wholly owned subsidiary of ManpowerGroup, based in Milwaukee. Ponds noted that the percentage of employees who failed to take all of their vacation did not decrease from the prior year's survey.

"It appears that more and more people are just simply not placing vacation as a priority, and it does suggest this might become more of the norm," Ponds said. "With so much emphasis on work and on achieving results, many employees are putting that above their personal needs and not recognizing and appreciating the fact that vacation can indeed have a very positive impact on their professional performance."

The top reasons workers cited for not using vacation were not being able to afford one, wanting to save time for future trips and having difficulty coordinating time off with family members' schedules, the Expedia survey showed. Others said they feared important work decisions would be made without them or that taking all of their time would be perceived negatively by an employer.

Nothing in Right Management's survey results suggested that managers are discouraging employees from taking vacation, Ponds said.

"We think that the disconnect that may be occurring is that many employees do have much more that they are accountable for in terms of their work and may fail to appreciate that's even more of a reason to take vacation," Ponds said.

Local employers said they offer vacation benefits to give employees time away from the job and encourage them to use it. Some said they allow vacation days to be carried over and banked from year to year, while others have a use-it-or-lose-it policy.

"We do recognize that taking time off is an important part of managing your life," said Brian Lewbart, a spokesman for T. Rowe Price Group Inc., which allows for a limited amount of vacation carry-over with prior approval but doesn't allow workers to bank vacation time from year to year. "We really do encourage our associates to use their vacation time, so they can take time for themselves and their families. And we encourage them to use the vacation time allowed and use it in the year it's given."

At Kelly & Associates Insurance Group in Hunt Valley, which employs more than 400 people, "we absolutely encourage our folks to take their time and do their best to manage their work-life balance," said Jane Davis, vice president of human resources.

Still, workers at Kelly failed to use 15 percent of their available vacation hours in 2012 on average, Davis said. The company offers a maximum of four weeks' vacation as well as personal days and 10 corporate holidays and does not allow vacation to be carried over from year to year. Exceptions have been made if someone is asked to change plans because of a business need.

"Part of it is planning on the individual's part," Davis said. But sometimes, she said, it comes down to the nature of the business. "We're a service-oriented business. If there's a business need, there's a sense of obligation, and folks will forgo their vacation to complete a project."

Davis said she's found through her human resources experience at different companies that some employees always will take very little vacation. For some, "personal and professional life is one and the same," she said.

Corporate Office Properties Trust, a Columbia-based owner and developer of suburban office buildings, allows employees to carry over vacation and about half do, sometimes to save up for a long vacation, said Holly Edington, senior vice president for human resources.

But "we do run into that [situation] that employees find it hard to take all the time they are allotted," she said. "We try and really encourage our managers to watch out for people whose banks are getting high. Vacation is there to recharge. ... It allows you to be able to clear your head and come back to the project you were working on with a fresh set of eyes."

Tom Filippini, CEO of NextGreatPlace Inc., a membership-based online vacation shopping service staffed by travel experts, said several employers in the Denver area recently joined NextGreatPlace to offer the services to workers who need vacation planning help. Filippini said he believes millions of vacation days go unused every year.

He heard from companies that "employees are not using vacation time. They don't know where to start on the Internet. They get overwhelmed and throw their hands up and end up not using it."

But employers, including some who have become attracted to the service, "are beginning to recognize if employees are not taking vacation, their performance suffers," Filippini said. "In some cases, there's a correlation between the lack of vacation and health issues. Employers are looking for ways to help employees get out of the office."

When Silver-Canady realized she had extra time, she decided to try a "stay-at-home-because-you're-well day." Taking a "wellness" vacation day on a Tuesday, she stayed home, caught up with friends, worked out at the gym, shopped for clothes and went grocery shopping.

She discovered "it's so good to be home and be able to do whatever you feel like doing on a workday. ... I spent time doing things I had chosen to do."

This year, she has decided to plan a trip to Toronto but also hopes to use at least one vacation day per quarter for wellness, "because I'm feeling fine, and I've earned the time," she said. "It's nice to break up the week. I took off on a Tuesday and came back Wednesday, and I felt better."

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