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RISMEDIA, March 1, 2008-(MCT)-438 million. That’s the estimated number of vacation days Americans failed to take in 2007. Psychologists, demographers and others say we pass over time off for many reasons — everything from an entrenched Puritan work ethic, to fear of being seen as reckless slackers relaxing while the economy burns, to simply squirreling away time for days when we’re stuck at home awaiting a repair call.

The figure for time left behind comes from Harris Interactive, the polling and research group, which for seven years has examined trends in unused vacation days for, the Internet travel booker. Expedia, along with just about every other travel-related business, overlays the findings onto the bottom line: If people aren’t taking vacation days, they’re not taking vacations.

Others also keep an eye on unused vacation. It’s an issue for human resources managers, responsible for overseeing employee time off — especially in companies where workers can roll days over to a new year or bank them for a windfall on leaving the firm.

Researchers on work-life issues, psychologists, and labor lawyers also deal in the subject. And, of course, employers grapple with it, even as they fail to take their own time off.

“I ask people at meetings all over the United States how many have had unused vacation time in the last year. Generally about a third of the hands will go up,” Judy Randall says. Her North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing tracks and forecasts trends, and she takes her vacation, frequently in Philadelphia to visit a daughter in West Chester.

“I think it’s an epidemic. We take less of the pitiful amount of vacation time we have than anybody else on the planet. We are genuine to-the-bone workaholics, and even if it’s killing us, we’re still doing it.”

The 438 million days are worth about $60 billion, Harris Interactive says, using average hourly wages for the tabulation. As with many extrapolations, you can argue with the figure — the Harris/Expedia poll also says that 35% of all American workers, or about 51 million people, are the people who scrap vacation days, on average three per person. By that accounting, the total number of unused days would be about 153 million.

The study then multiplies the entire American work force by three unused days, arriving at 438 million and change, and some time-management experts say they believe that’s closer to reality. Even at the lower 153 million figure, we bypass enough time to fill more than 5,500 lifetimes of 75 years each.

At least we’re doing better than in 2006, when the figure was four unused days per worker. The Harris/Expedia research last spring, among a nationwide cross-section of more than 4,000 American workers, asked about vacation plans for the year.

Averaging the number of days left behind per worker would be meaningful if everyone who works in the United States actually got vacations. But we don’t. About 75% of the work force gets paid vacation — an average of 14 days, plus whatever holidays employers grant under labor agreements or by fiat.

Not only do we regularly give up days we’ve often bargained hard to get, we also get few compared with the rest of the industrialized world. In fact, the United States is singular when it comes to vacation days: We are the only advanced economy in the world without a minute of government-mandated time off.

In order to be a member of the European Union, a nation’s employers must offer workers a minimum of 20 days off a year. Several mandate more. According to “No-Vacation Nation,” a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research about the United States’ unique place in the balance between work and lifestyle, France requires the most vacation: 30 days, plus a paid holiday. Overall, though, the French are beaten by Austria and Portugal, which require employers to give 22 vacation days off, plus 13 holidays, for a total of 35 days off — amounting to seven weeks a year.

Among the richest countries, Canada and Japan mandate the fewest days off, not counting the U.S. total of zero. The Japanese, who have a word — karoshi — for dying from overwork, get a minimum of 10 days and no nationally mandated holidays. Canadians have the same minimum, but get an additional eight paid holidays.

According to people who research employee benefits, workers in those countries also leave time behind. The Harris/Expedia survey says the French also give up three days, the Spanish, two, and the Germans, one — but they all have more time off, and an incentive to use it because it’s more of a cultural mandate.

Workaholism. The Puritan ethic. Feeling guilty about taking earned days. The fear of being overrun by competition. People frequently cite these reasons for junking their vacation days.

Others, often at the worker-bee level, save vacation days for family emergencies or appointments that crop up. “If the cable guy is going to come by the house, a lot of people have to take a vacation to be there, for instance,” says John Schmitt, coauthor of the “No-Vacation Nation” study. Or, says Bernard N. Katz, of the employment law firm Meranze & Katz in Center City, “people will try to save vacation days for supplemental sick leave, for when they can’t work.”

And clearly, a number of people who fail to take their time off really like their work. After cramming in more than a week of unused vacation time at the last minute, Christiana Brenner, a senior account executive with a Chicago firm, ended 2007 with 11 unused vacation days. Brenner, 26, who grew up in Tuckerton, N.J., about a 90-minute drive from Center City, says she’s “fortunate to have a job I truly enjoy” and even considers fun.

Last year, Cassandra Oryl didn’t give up any of her 10 vacation days and three holidays, but the year before, she traveled for fun to Portugal, and still left days behind at Braithwaite Communications, a Rittenhouse Square public relations firm. “Because we’re an agency, we ultimately have to answer to clients,” she says. “So some years, there just isn’t much time for vacation.”

No time for vacation — it’s a running American theme despite much research that trumpets the restorative benefits of time off. These include the well-respected Framingham Heart Study, which found over two decades that workers who take annual vacations are less likely to die of heart attacks.

“The whole workplace is worse off than we probably know,” says Joe Robinson, founder of the Work to Live Campaign, seeking a minimum number of government-mandated paid vacation days in the United States. Robinson also works with Take Back Your Time, another group stumping for legislation. “People are preoccupied with defining their identities by their jobs,” he says. “All the economic and job issues just exacerbate it.”
Robinson, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., and takes all his vacation, offers an antidote: the Cook Islands, sun-drenched in the South Pacific. He took time off there. “No stress,” he says. “In the middle of nowhere. I highly recommend it.”

Copyright © 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.