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'Vacation guilt' costs workers $66.4 billion in lost benefits

  • Workers forfeited more than 200 million vacation days in 2016— and this year is on track to be more of the same.
  • Here's how to claim that heard-earned PTO before it's too late.
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Karl Weatherly | Getty Images

While many workers are eagerly anticipating their winter vacations, just as many have nothing on their calendars but work.

In fact, employees in the U.S. leave much of their paid time off unused, according to a report by jobs and recruitment website Glassdoor. It found American workers on average use only 54 percent of their eligible vacation time.

Of those employees who get paid time off, more than 90 percent have taken at least some of those days over the last 12 months, Glassdoor said. Yet only 23 percent took all of the time they were entitled to — and nearly 10 percent took no paid time off at all. The job site polled more than 2,000 adults in March and April.

The 206 million vacation days that could not be rolled over, banked or paid out last year added up to about $66.4 billion in lost benefits. For the average worker, that comes out to $604, according to a separate report by Project: Time Off, which is sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association.

Katie Denis, the group's lead researcher, projects it will be more of the same for 2017.

"The reality of the calendar starts to become much more pressing when you get to the last quarter," Denis said.

"[But] when you think about what people are giving up, it's significant," she said. "You are essentially working as a volunteer — that's not good for the broader economy, or for individuals, either."

Those forfeited days aren't the only sign of workers' vacation guilt.

When they do get away, Americans are often taking shorter trips, according to a study for Europ Assistance, a travel insurance network. The average vacation was just 1.4 weeks in 2017, down from 1.6 weeks a year earlier, Europ Assistance said.

Plus, fewer employees who travel say they can completely "check out" while they are out of the office – 54 percent said so in 2017, from 63 percent in 2014, according to Glassdoor. Two-thirds of those taking time off report doing at least some work while they are away.

"The U.S. has a culture of guilt about taking enough vacation, and it's American workers who miss out as a result," said Jessica Bisesto, a senior editor at the travel site TravelPirates.com.

Bisesto offers these tips to make the most of your vacation days before it's too late:

Travel over the holiday weekends. This year, both Christmas and New Year's Day are on Mondays, which is ideal for a long-weekend excursion. Leave on Friday night and return on Wednesday to make the most of the holiday.

Take short trips. Get just far enough out of town to see or do something new and different. There are many fantastic destinations across the country that could be just a few hours' drive from your home base.

Know what's happening at work. Taking advantage of the slow period at the office over Christmas means that you won't have to worry about a hefty workload accumulating in your absence and you'll feel less stress when you return to your desk.

If you just can't swing a last-minute getaway, ask human resources for details of the company paid time off policy. You may be able to roll over at least some of those unused days to 2018, or cash them out.

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