Have you taken a summer vacation?  It’s almost Labor Day.

Peak vacation time is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Almost since the Industrial Revolution began, removing people from farms, the family vacation – away from work and other grinds – has been a much desired, and remembered, treasure.

If you haven’t taken all your days off, you were far from alone. Americans are increasingly skipping vacations.  According to a Glassdoor survey, half of all Americans no longer use all their company agreed-to vacation time.  Heck, 15% don’t take any vacation at all.

If you did take vacation, was your mobile device, and/or laptop, used for work?  Or did you take the job with you?  20% say they talked to “the boss” while on vacation.  1 in 4 talked to a colleague.


According to a study by GfK Public Affairs and Communications, people suffer from feeling like their employer really doesn’t want them to take time off.  In order to increase their sense of employment security, employees are trying harder every year to make themselves “indispensable.” This leads us to believe we really can’t be gone, or there will be a huge mountain of work facing us (and countless unpaid overtime hours spent digging out) when we return from a break.  Or worse, the job won’t be there when we come back.

The study creators call this the “work martyr complex.”  No matter how much we love family, we are martyrs to employers in order to keep that incredibly necessary, and fleeting paycheck.  After all, we have no job assurance in America.  Almost no white collar workers, other than C-level execs, have an employment agreement.  And union membership has dropped to lows predating WWII due to a lack of unionization of white collar and service employees.

Where Europeans and other countries have multiple worker protection laws for everyone, Americans are – by and large – “employees at will.”  Meaning an employer can fire you for just about any reason drummed up.  Even anger created because something happened while you were on vacation. After 2 decades of CEOs who lead by “operational improvements,” causing round after round of cost cuts and layoffs, employees have learned that the day they take off could be the day their budget is slashed, or their job eliminated.

We cannot underestimate the role of leaders in this situation. Nobody can be productive 24x7x365.  Everyone needs time off.  And the more important the role, the more critical the decisions, the more time off is necessary.  Just look at commercial airline pilots – would you want them doubling their flying time? A 7X7 pilot may make only a handful of important decisions every year, yet we want that cockpit filled with crews that are rested, alert and ready to make good decisions.

Why isn’t this true for a plant manager?  Compliance manager? Sales manager?  Audit manager? Communications manager?  Is their role no less critical to the operation of the corporate “aircraft” and the safety of all the corporate employee “passengers?”

Yet, far too many leaders allow the combination of mobile technology and employees’ embedded fear of losing their jobs to breed an environment where vacation goes unused.  No company tracks how often a boss calls, texts, emails or phones a subordinate when on a holiday.  No company tracks how often a boss requires a subordinate to “check in” with the office while gone.  Nobody pays any attention to how many hours an employee on vacation uses their mobile device or PC for company business while, ostensibly, “vacating” their work in order to relax and recharge.  In fact, that is considered “dedication.”

All companies track how much time every employee takes off.  Take too many days and employees are docked pay.  Take even more days and that employee could well lose his job.  But even though 95% of senior leaders espouse support for employees taking their vacations, have you ever heard of a company disciplining an employee for not taking a vacation?  If half the company’s paid time off days go unused, the employer simply takes advantage of the possible cost savings and additional productivity.  Usually saying it was the employee’s responsibility to figure out how to leave the job for several days without creating any problems.

In a quintessential example of the all-too-often real senior leader view of vacations, fifteen years ago I heard the President of Computer Sciences Corporation’s Commercial Division brag to the CEO, and a group of large clients, that only about 25% of the division’s allocated days off were ever used.  He personally took credit that via his “disciplined leadership” employees showed up for work even when they could take days off.  He even bragged about people working on major holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  He wanted everyone to know that he did not support a “lethargic” organization.

Chronic focus on the short term always has negative long-term implications.  That division of CSC lost 80% of its revenue, and employees, as burn-out drove people away.  Over and again we ovbserve that employees see themselves as not valued when they work in fear.  Unused vacation days is a simple metric of a company culture that values short-term benefits over long-term performance, and a culture that supports fear over results.

If you didn’t use all your vacation, it’s really not your fault.  It is the culture of your organization, the messages sent by leaders, and the metrics used by Human Resources.  When employees matter, and the company wants long-term performance, then people know they are valued and they are comfortable taking days off.  If you’re not taking all your vacation days it may well be a sign of problems in your company, and perhaps it is a good thing to use some of those days to find a different place to work.  If you lead a company where employees don’t take allotted time off, perhaps you should re-assess your leadership and procedures, before it’s too late.