Vacation Trip or Guilt Trip? American Workers Are Taking Both

Exploring PTO trends among small businesses, and how workers feel about them

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Does this scenario sound familiar? You spend hours researching your next vacation destination, diligently stockpile your PTO days, put in your request for time off, and when it’s time to say bon voyage to work, you somehow feel … guilty?

If so, you’re not alone. American workers are increasingly feeling ashamed about taking vacation time because they feel they can’t leave their work.

Workest HR and workplace experts surveyed more than 1,000 employees of small businesses (companies with 500 or fewer employees) to learn more about their attitude toward paid time off, plus how small businesses structure their vacation policies and current PTO trends.

A note on the term “paid time off”

Paid time off (also referred to as PTO), is a combination of vacation days, sick leave, and personal time that an employee can use at their discretion. Rather than give separate vacation days or sick days, PTO serves as a catch-all where employees can use it to take care of a sick child, to go on vacation, or take a day to Netflix and chill.

Taking Time off Creates Guilt

The survey found 39% of respondents feel guilty taking time off because of pressure from their boss or work it creates for colleagues.

Beyond the pressure of productivity, a shocking 55% of employees reveal they don’t take time off because of concerns about job security or missing out on promotional opportunities.

Guilt appears to come in the form of workload, even at the expense of their own health and well being.

When asked why they’re not taking time off for vacation, or PTO, over 43% admit their workload won’t allow it. Yet, the majority of workers — 72% — agree that taking time off makes them feel healthier and more productive at work.

Downtime is increasingly shown to boost productivity, increase our immune defense, and enhance productivity.

Finding Work-Life Balance remains elusive

Turns out that Employers are a big part of the problem. While 62% of workers overwhelmingly agree that PTO allows them to maintain a healthy work-life balance, only 21% of respondents stated that their particular company’s PTO policy allows them to do so.

This is a grave concern since workplace burnout is now recognized by health organizations as an occupational phenomenon.


Our data found 17% of respondents say that their company’s PTO policy is “poor” compared to what’s offered at other similar companies in their area, and 18% of respondents say they would leave their current company within the next year due to their PTO policies.

Company policies are definitely misaligned with employee’s need for rest.  Our data revealed that 25% of businesses don’t have a formal PTO policy — time off is distributed only at the manager’s discretion. And even worse, 21% of workers said their employer does not encourage using the PTO available to them.

Forget retirement, employees would rather have a vacation 

We asked respondents to rank 9 commonly-offered benefit options according to value.

Most important to employees

As we see, PTO came in second, beating:

  • Dental and vision insurance
  • 401(k)s with an employer contribution
  • Employer-sponsored life insurance
  • Extended parental leave
  • Health and fitness perks
  • Commuter benefits

The only benefit employees found more valuable was healthcare coverage.

Workers want unlimited PTO, ‘me time’ on the job

Companies like Netflix have garnered national attention for their unlimited time off policy, and for good reason.

60% of the survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I would be more likely to take a job from an employer that offered an unlimited PTO and/or vacation policy.”

Only 16% of respondents disagreed with the statement (the rest of the respondents were neutral).

There’s also a reason you hear about employee perks like meditation rooms and nap pods — 35% of respondents said they would like a little “me time” on the job, where they can go for a walk, take a nap, or take a mental health break. Unfortunately, our survey found only 10% of small and mid-size businesses offer this benefit.

Despite the high value placed on PTO, only 22% of respondents say they negotiate PTO when seeking a new job.

Additionally, 1 out of 4 workers agree or strongly agree they’d be willing to take a cut in wages to get more of it.

Most workers don’t use up their PTO days

Only 5% of workers take their PTO in blocks of 10 days or more. For 43% of workers, 1 or 2 days is all they take at a time.

When asked: “Excluding paid holidays, sick days, bereavement leave, and maternity/paternity leave, how many days of paid time off do you get from your employer per year?”

  • Almost 37% of workers report they get 5 days or less of PTO time per year
  • Only 2% of employees get more than 3 weeks of PTO

When we ask how much of their allotted PTO workers typically take in a year, only 36% of respondents said they take every day offered, and the majority ⁠— 49%⁠ — said they don’t.

Most employees surveyed take 1 day at a time off, followed by a work week (typical vacation). However, the majority of time taken is in mini amounts; meaning, employees are choosing to find breaks throughout the year rather than deal with the struggles of long vacations.

Even organizations with an outstanding PTO policy frequently see a disconnect between time offered and time utilized. It’s estimated American workers forfeited over 750 million vacation days in 2018. Employees were either unable or unwilling to utilize the time given.


Consequences of poor PTO policies 

Have you ever lied to an employer about being sick to use a vacation day? The survey found 25% of employees said they lied, with the No. 1 reason being they wanted to save vacation time for the end of the year.

35% of respondents said they avoid connecting with colleagues on social media so they can avoid discussing or explaining what they did on their time off.

The types of PTO employees actually want

There are big disparities that exist between what employees want and what small businesses are offering. A condensed work week, floating holidays, getting your birthday off, and “paid rest time” (where employees are compensated for time to take a walk, nap, or take a mental break) top the list for employees.

On the other hand, employers offer floating holidays and rollover PTO. Most small businesses don’t offer perks like unlimited PTO and sick time, sabbaticals, and birthday PTO.

Conclusion: Companies need to get on board or lose valuable employees

It is clear that employees value PTO and are willing to lie and sacrifice to get more of it. Employers need to focus on well-rested, productive employees and provide the PTO policies to match.


Methodology and Limitations 

For this study, Zenefits via Workest polled a total of 1,008 U.S. workers via Survey Gizmo. Our respondents were employees of small to mid-size businesses, defined as having 500 or less employees.

Participants who did not fall into this category grouping were excluded from the analysis.

Additional Data Sources

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