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For majority of workers, vacation days go unused

As workplace demands and culture change, many cut back on free days

Vacation time is a “use it or lose it” benefit at most companies, and increasingly, many employees find themselves on the losing side of that equation.

A growing number of North American workers do not take all of their annual allotted days off, companies report. Although some of those days can be rolled over into the next year, workplace analysts estimate that more than half of employees lose at least some vacation every year.

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Working nonstop is a “subtle badge of honor” in today’s world, said Matt Norquist, general manager at the global workplace consultancy Right Management in New York. Its survey recently found that 70 percent of workers do not use all their vacation time.

With staffs reduced and workloads increased since the last recession, employees find it harder to get away. Technology has added to the expectation that employees are supposed to be on all the time — working evenings and weekends, checking in even when they finally do use some vacation time.

“That’s what is seen as what successful performers do,” Norquist said.

Over the past three years, employees have been leaving more days on the table. Americans will have an average of 12 unused vacation days at the end of this year, double the number from 2011, according to a survey conducted for the travel site Hotwire. The main reasons cited are classic vacation killers: no time and no money.

In general, some of these days can be rolled over into the next year, as long as they are used by a certain date. But if employees did not have time to use them the year before, there is a good chance they will not have time to use them the next.

‘People are almost afraid to take a vacation. There’s that hesitancy: Am I going to be looked at as a lesser employee?’

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“Once you start banking carryover days, you almost never catch up,” said Norquist, who admits he has never taken all his vacation days.

Indeed, one in five workers over 35 in the poll said they had 20 or more unused days.

Losing vacation is nothing new, of course. Nancy Thomas, a communications specialist in Cranston, R.I., estimates that she lost nearly a full year of paid time off during her 22 years with the American Heart Association. But in this era of high unemployment and decreased job stability, taking vacations causes more anxiety than it used to, she said.

“People are almost afraid to take a vacation,” said Thomas, who runs her own firm, Tapestry Communications. “There’s that hesitancy: Am I going to be looked at as a lesser employee?”

But not taking time off makes employees less productive. Numerous studies show employees are happier and healthier, and therefore work harder, when they take a break.

Scott Tarentino, who gets three weeks of vacation a year at his technology sales job in Boston, finds it so hard to take the time that he loses days at the end of every year. Tarentino has a quota to hit every month, and it does not change if he goes on vacation. So he hardly ever takes more than a day or two off at a time.

This year, even though he took time between Christmas and New Year’s specifically to use up his paid days off, he still ended up losing a week of vacation. “It is basically like I’m working for free,” he said.

Some employees may stockpile days as a makeshift severance package in the event they get laid off or quit before finding another job, said Bob Kelleher, founder of Employee Engagement Group, a Woburn workplace consulting firm.

Most companies pay employees the balance of their unused vacation when they leave, which is one reason that some businesses, largely in the tech world, are doing away with vacation policies. That means employees can take as much time off as they want, though they often end up taking less than they did in the past.

Companies, meanwhile, are not stuck paying departing workers for unused time.

“Some employees look at their vacation balance almost like a bridge between getting paid and looking for a new job,” Kelleher said. “There’s that fear that hasn’t subsided. It’s the reality of, ‘Let me sock away a few more weeks just to make sure if anything happened I have some level of protection.’ ”

Some companies have instituted policies that help keep vacation days from going to waste. After getting requests from employees, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., an engineering consulting firm in Watertown, recently started allowing its nearly 1,000 employees to donate days to people who had burned through their paid time off due to medical issues.

“If there’s anybody who’s losing vacation, we can try to capture it and give it to someone in need,” said Keri Kocur, senior vice president of human resources, who estimates the firm helps five to eight people a year.

AndPlus, a Framingham software firm, last year took the unusual step of letting workers roll over as much time as they want. In the past, there was often a mad scramble in December to take time off, said president Sean Mahoney, but many employees were never able to use all their vacation days in time. To encourage people to take vacation throughout the year, Mahoney started building in down time between projects and urging employees to take breaks then.

“An engaged employee rarely takes time off unless they’re forced to do so,” said Mahoney, who admits he never takes vacation.

At the Boston property developer Beacon Communities, executives are devising a policy that allows people to avoid using vacation hours for the time they spend making calls and sending e-mails during days off. Employees like the idea, said Darlene Perrone, chief administrative officer, but for those who already find it difficult to use all their allotted vacation, it just adds to the ever-growing bank of unused time off.

“I’m not sure if it’s creating a vicious cycle,” Perrone said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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