The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are you a ‘Work Martyr?’

Photo by iStock

Never take vacation? Dread the pile up of work if you do? Feel no one can do your job if you leave? That you’re indispensable? Or worse, do you worry that if you take a break, no one will think you really are?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. In fact, 40 percent of all Americans don’t take all of their vacation, leaving 430 million days of unused paid vacation a year, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

Why? Turns out a lot of Americans have what they call a “Work Martyr Complex,” even if it costs their health, well-being and relationships.

“We found that people have this whole busyness as a badge of honor thing,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “We’re becoming a nation of work martyrs. People really wear it on their sleeves how they don’t take time off. Everyone around the world looks at Americans like we’re crazy.”

For their report, “Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Earned Leave?” they hired GfK Public Affairs to survey over 1,300 Americans. About 40 percent said they don’t take vacation because they worry about returning to a mountain of work. Thirty-five percent said they don’t leave because they feel no one else can do their job. One-third said they couldn’t afford to use their paid time off and one-fifth said they didn’t want to be seen as replaceable.

Workers wouldn’t take time off, even though 90 percent of those surveyed rated their vacations as close to perfect and majorities said vacations helped them relax and recharge, reduced their stress, enabled them to build closer relationships with family and made them happier.

“We also found this tremendous disconnect. Senior executives said it was really important for their people to take vacation, get recharged. But when we asked if they ever talked about it, 33 percent of the senior executives said never or rarely,” Dow said.

“And two-thirds of the employers say, ‘I never hear my supervisor ever talk about the importance of vacation. Everyone thinks taking vacation is the right thing to do, yet it’s not something that’s spoken about in the workplace.”

Managers didn’t set a very good example either. The survey found that nearly half answer emails on their vacation, three in 10 return work calls and just 37 percent of senior managers surveyed fully unplug from work while they’re away.

Dow represents the $900 billion travel industry, two-thirds of which is what he calls “leisure travel” that people take on vacation. An earlier report by Oxford Economics estimated that American’s unused vacation days could mean an additional $67 billion in travel spending as well as more jobs and earned income.

The reports, Dow said, are an attempt to start a conversation about why Americans need to take all their vacation, for their own physical and mental health and well-being, as well as the health of the economy. “I look at our own organization, we’re phenomenally effective, and people do enjoy and take their time off,” he said. “There’s no relationship to taking time off and being a slacker.”

To prove his point, Dow has pledged a $500 bonus to any of his 60 employees who takes their full paid vacation time this year. Most employees start with three paid weeks off a year, in addition to the days before and after holidays.

And he himself? “I just looked last week and saw I hadn’t taken vacation, so I’m going to take 10 days and go to Australia,” Dow said “I was an offender. No question about it.”