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by Roger Dow | March 17, 2014

Roger DowDid you use all of the paid time off you earned last year?

More than 40 percent of Americans finished 2013 with unused paid leave. In fact, we left a total of 429 million days of earned leave on the table last year -- an average of 3.2 days per worker.

These figures might seem like just another "workaholic nation" proof point. But a growing body of evidence proves that failing to use our earned leave has huge implications for America's economy, the productivity of businesses, and the health and well-being of workers themselves.

The economic effects of unused leave are pernicious and go well beyond the travel industry. According to research conducted by Oxford Economics, unused paid time off cost the U.S. economy $160 billion in spending, which would have supported 1.2 million jobs nationwide across a variety of industries. Governments at all levels lost $21 billion in tax revenues because of paid leave that was never taken.

The research shows that if workers took just one more day off each year, it would generate a $73 billion boost to our economy annually. Even more importantly, when they take time away from work, employees report improved mental and physical health, greater focus on the job, and a more satisfactory family and social life.

Most businesses also recognize the benefits of using earned leave, the study shows. Managers clearly understand that workers who take their time off return to work more productive, healthier and more energized. Employee retention increases along with overall morale, both of which have a strong impact on the bottom line.

The problem is simple: Americans aren't using all the days off they are entitled to, and we have to change that. We call it the "day-off deficit." The more we study the issue, the clearer it becomes that taking time off is vitally important to a healthy life and a strong economy.

On the surface, the solution also seems simple. However, the plain truth is we're facing a significant challenge. Cultural and workplace barriers prevent workers from using the time they've earned. It will take nothing less than a cultural shift to erase deeply rooted beliefs that sacrificing earned leave is something to admire and emulate.

To meet that challenge, we have launched a multi-year initiative to motivate Americans to use more of the paid time off they have earned. The strategy is detailed in "The Day-Off Dividend." The full report outlines the specific actions we're taking, including the execution of original research to spark a national conversation about the negative effects of working nonstop; additional research to prove the ongoing benefits of taking time off; a deeper dive into the barriers preventing workers from taking the time they've earned, and a presentation of the outcomes we hope to achieve. You can read more about the report at traveleffect.com/research/reports/day-dividend.

The day-off deficit is real and widespread. The release of the report is the first step toward transforming public perceptions so that personal time off is understood as a business investment, an economic necessity, and a path to stronger families and better personal health so we can all -- businesses, the economy and each of us personally -- benefit from the "Day-Off Dividend."

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the national umbrella organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. that represents all segments of travel in America.