US workers mostly satisfied with their PTO but still don’t use all of it

Dive Brief:

  • Most U.S. workers in a Harris Poll survey from April said they were satisfied with their employer’s paid time off and vacation policies — and yet, 3 in 4 said they did not use the maximum PTO permitted by their employers.
  • The survey of 1,170 respondents found that 60% had more than 10 paid days off per year while 7% had unlimited PTO. According to Harris Poll, a third of those with unlimited PTO said that this equaled more than 30 days off per year. Pressure to be available and responsive as well as heavy workloads were the top reasons for not taking more time off.
  • Even when they did take time off, 60% of respondents said they struggled to fully disconnect from work; 86% said they would check emails from their boss and 56% took work-related calls during time off. Nearly half said they felt guilty about taking time off in the first place.

Dive Insight:

With Memorial Day marking the unofficial start of summer in the U.S., public attention once again turns the subject of untaken time away from work, even in instances where employees have paid time off days saved.

This issue has resurfaced on a seemingly annual basis. For instance, a 2023 Eagle Hill Consulting survey found that more than one-third of employees had not taken a vacation in over a year. A large number of employees in that survey, 27%, also said they checked work email and messages even when they did take time off.

Majority of US workers get between 11 and 30 PTO days per year

% of respondents by allotted paid time off per year, measured in work days

While workers have many reasons for not taking time off, heavy workloads have become one of the most common. Like Harris Poll, both Eagle Hill Consulting’s survey and a separate 2023 survey by the International Foundation for Employee Benefit Plans found that heavy workloads factored prominently in unused time off, including paid time off. IFEBP found that 52% of employees with access to unlimited, or open, PTO cited workloads as a reason for not using the benefit.

The process of taking PTO is also complicated by the advent of flexible work as hybrid and remote workers may feel even more guilty about taking time off. Other research by HR platform BambooHR found that even though PTO requests by employees have increased by some measures, approvals may not be keeping pace.

A majority of employees in a 2022 Visier survey said they stayed connected to work while on vacation, mostly so they would not fall behind on their work or because it gave them peace of mind. But working on vacation also posed a retention issue for employers, according to Visier. Workers who told the firm they were “very connected” to work during time off were 36% more likely to quit, it found.

Sources including Eagle Hill Consulting have previously advised HR departments to encourage managers to lead by example when it comes to taking time off. Relatedly, the Harris Poll survey found that 76% of workers said they wished their workplace cultures “placed a stronger emphasis on the value of taking regular breaks and utilizing [PTO].”