December 2, 2014

Around the World on PTO

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travelTraveling is especially fun when it’s covered by three magical letters: P-T-O. With all the projected shifts in workplace perks, will we finally see the U.S. catch up to the rest of the world in terms of paid time off? The benefits to employees and the economy are clear, but whether or not Americans will take the time off — or even want to — is fuzzy.

Hitting the Reset Button: Good for Employees

A vacation can be just the reset an employee needs when they’re stuck in a rut. Seventy-five percent of managers report returning to work recharged and refreshed after taking time off, while 50 percent said they were more focused, and 41 percent felt a lower level of stress, according to Oxford Economics. A better attitude at work can result in a more productive day, a more satisfied and healthy employee, and even an improved personal and social life.

Since PTO brings all these benefits, does that mean more American workers need more days off? All workers have their own limits and thresholds when it comes to the daily grind, but culture definitely plays a part. Americans are offered and take a significantly smaller amount of time off per year than European and Oceanic countries.

Map It: How the U.S. Compares

The United States generally does not require employers to provide vacation time. However, 77 percent of private-sector companies do offer employees an average of 21 days. Warning: a look across the seas may be surprising.

Amount of PTO days by country:

  •      Australia – 28 days
  •      Ireland – 29 days
  •      New Zealand and Belgium – 30 days
  •      Italy and France – 31 days
  •      Spain and Germany – 34 days

Leading the pack are Portugal and Austria, at a whopping 35 days each. Ready to move to the land of the von Trapps and Wolfgang Puck?

“[The United States] is the only advanced economy without a national leave policy guaranteeing a break for employees,” said John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.“Of the 15 most economically developed countries, 14 have sick and vacation time off. We’re the outlier.”

If American workers were offered more time off, would they use it?

Staycation: What’s Stopping the Jet Setter?

Not all offered paid time off is being used. Researchers found that, while three out of four American workers earn time off, 40 percent leave some of that time unused. What is stopping the benefited worker from taking full advantage of their days off?

Nearly 32 percent of private-sector workers cited accumulation of days for the future as a key motivation for not taking all earned leave. Other factors, such as a heavy workload, management, and peer pressure, prevent some employees from taking all earned paid time off. Survey respondents report that culture discourages taking time off. If the CEO and managers do not use their own time or subconsciously make employees feel guilty for taking it, then there will definitely be some canceled Kayak reservations.

Is it in the American culture to support taking more than ten days off a year? Many U.S. workers have it engrained in their head to work, work, work. Thirty-nine percent in the private sector reported a heavy workload as a factor that prevents them from taking PTO. Other factors include the feeling that work would be too hard coming back and the risk of being overlooked for a promotion.

But if Americans did spend the extra money to take a vacation, there would be some serious big picture effects on the economy.

Less Work, More Money: Benefits to the Economy

More vacation playtime translates to more booked hotel rooms, more restaurant bills, more plane tickets, etc. The travel/leisure category gets an added bump with every paid day off workers use. What happens when Americans hold off on the getaway?

On average, employees with paid time off used 84 percent of their time off benefit, or 3.2 days, in 2013. A breakdown on the economic impact shows a deficit of 1.2 million U.S. jobs and $52 billion in additional income that was left on the table. One-hundred percent of used paid time off would translate into $21 billion to the economy in terms of federal, state, and local tax revenues. Sound like a win-win?

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Will the United States become more “European” in the future, or will the bare-bones American productivity/work culture outlast the millennial boom? The jury is still out on whether or not Americans would actually use their vacation time. A minimum amount of paid time off seems fair, but what is the right balance between receiving enough down time and staying competitive in a results-orientated work culture?


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Kerry is a Web Developer at Red Branch Media, a full-service B2B marketing agency specializing in Human Resources and Global Workforce Vendors. She focuses on user experience and lead generation on web automation platforms such as Wordpress, SharpSpring and Hubspot using HTML and CSS. Kerry is a recurring contributor to and enjoys writing about employee benefits, millennials and company culture.
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