I am one of those Americans who aren’t taking vacation days.

Jana Kasperkevic at the Guardian tells us about this huge number of American workers who could be taking vacations, but for some reason never get around to it:

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. We’re taught to work until we drop,” said Femia. “I doubt anybody who isn’t using them is doing it for spite or malice. It’s probably because their company is discouraging them from using them or because they feel like they’ll fall behind in their workplace if they do.”

As someone who hasn’t taken a vacation since late Spring of 2013, I can give one of many possible answers to this question: it’s because I’m overburdened and unsupported at work. And it’s not because I’ve actively chosen to be in that situation, except to the extent that I prefer not to be unemployed.

In my case, the department is overworked and inadequately staffed. We’re not short on people, per se, but we’re short on experienced people. I’m not quite the only person in the place who knows how to do what I do, but I honestly don’t know who’d handle my work if I took a week off. If I’m not here to do the work, it doesn’t get done, and there’s a lot of it. There’s enough to keep me occupied all day, every day, and it’s not like I take my sweet time at it. I am an efficient worker, because that’s what it takes to keep on top of my workload. This stuff needs to be done, and I’m the only one who does it. I’m not entirely sure how my department would function if I took a week off. Of course that’s not really for me to worry about, as I’m not the boss, but I just know there would be a huge backlog of work waiting for me when I came back. And that is for me to worry about, because I don’t even feel comfortable taking a sick day.

(Oddly enough, this summer was better for me than most! I had a temp to take care of the extra work that usually comes to me in the summer with the fiscal year end. But that still doesn’t answer the question of who would do my usual work if I took time off.)

One day of my work not getting done equals several days of me staying after hours to catch up. That’s the sort of environment that makes it a bad idea to take my vacation days. Even if my boss tells me, in so many words, that she wants me to take vacation, the reality is that I’ll be punished when I come back.

If American employers actually want their workers to use their vacation days, then they need to do more than just wring their hands over how many people aren’t taking any time off. They need to keep their companies sufficiently staffed and trained so that everything that needs to get done, does get done when people take time off, and workers don’t have to stress about how they’ll catch up when they return. Something tells me my employer is far from alone in having failed to do that. Don’t blame it on the workers.