October 22, 2014; CNN Travel

CNN reports on a study released by the U.S. Travel Association that shows Americans are taking fewer vacation days now than at any time in the past 40 years. In 2013, workers forfeited 169 million days of paid time off, or about $500 per worker. (Even if the worker recovers the money for the annual leave not taken, they have given up the opportunity to take a break from working.)

The travel industry is concerned about the economic impact of vacation-related spending on its members and the travel industry as a whole. However, the study also has broader implications, as it reflects increasing anxiety about workers’ ability to keep a current job or find a new one. It also indicates possible psychological consequences from work-related stress and sacrifice of work-life balance.

While workers report concerns about being thought of as “slackers” for taking all their vacation days, Travel Association president Roger Dow says, “It does them no good whatsoever. People who take more time off tend to get more raises and promotions.”

Other worker concerns include facing the piles of work awaiting them after a vacation and the effects of “device addiction,” where workers evaluate their own productivity, and believe others evaluate their productivity, based on their timely access to email and other technology-based communication.

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Less structured leave policies, sometimes referred to as “PTO” (paid time off), can increase both flexibility and anxiety for workers because they lump all types of leave into a single category and encourage workers to name their own leave needs up to the allowed maximum. One economic effect of changes to leave policies is the trend toward “use it or lose it” approaches, where paid time off is not carried over from year to year and pay for unused leave is no longer made to employees.

Social service providers have known for a long time that personal and workplace stresses contribute to the need for services from domestic abuse prevention to gambling and substance abuse treatment. This travel industry study helps point out that having a job doesn’t relieve economic stress and perceived vulnerability, and that workers are acting against their own best career and psychological interests by foregoing vacation time to stay on the job. While the economy is improving, the personal and family needs associated with a bad economy are still with us.—Michael Wyland