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Scared to Go on Vacation?

Workplace competition, money worries cause many Americans to forgo their days off

Mike, a story artist for the Disney Channel, hasn't taken a vacation in three years. Last time he did, he wished he'd stayed at the office.

See also: Older Americans not using up vacation days.

He and his family traveled to a remote area with bad cellphone reception. He tried to keep up with goings-on back at work, but couldn't as closely as he wanted. "When I got back, I found that one of my coworkers had been undermining me while I was away," Mike recounts. "It took me a long time to repair that damage."

Employees with beachball in the office lose vacation time often out of fear for their jobs

In this down economy, many employees fear losing their job if they take a vacation. — Photo by: Gallery Stock

"We get six weeks to produce an episode," explains Mike. "And anyone who leaves during those six weeks is out of the loop. That can bode ill for a career in a cutthroat industry."

Mike is hardly an exception in the American workplace. Just 54 percent of American employees took all their vacation time in 2010, a survey by Right Management and World at Work found. Similarly, an August 2010 poll by Reuters/Ipsos found that 57 percent of Americans were likely to take all the days coming to them.

What's going on here?

"It's a down economy," says John de Graaf, executive director of Take Back Your Time, a Seattle organization challenging what it sees as an epidemic of overwork and overscheduling in the United States. "There's far less job security here than in Europe, and people worry that if they take time off they might not seem as dedicated to the job — and might be targeted for layoff."

Many older workers inherited a conservative work ethic. They regard vacation as a luxury rather than a right and they use it sparingly.

"It's generational," says Dan Ryan, of Ryan Search & Consulting in Nashville, Tenn. "I'm a baby boomer — age 56 — and I'm accustomed to working. The line between work and personal life has never been so blurry. My kids — one is just out of college — have a different perspective. They're more likely to take their vacations. They don't like their dad's habits."

Tom Richardson, senior director of strategic planning and business development for the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, feels the pressure.

"I felt guilty taking more than a couple of full weeks off in a given year, as if doing so equated to my not working hard enough," said Richardson. The workplace culture "implied that I had to prove that I was indispensable — which I couldn't be if I indulged the luxury of time off."

Presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich had a similar experience when he went on a cruise in the Greek isles against staff advice. He returned in June from the two-week vacation to find his staff questioning the fire in his belly — and more than a dozen of them quitting en masse.

Next: Why don't employees use up their vacations? >>

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