(CNN) -- America's workers are leaving vacation time on the table, and they're paying a price for it. According to Project: Time Off's latest State of American Vacation 2018 , the American workforce gave up 705 million vacation days last year alone.
Of those days, 212 million were forfeited -- they could not be banked, rolled over or paid out. That forfeited time cost employees $62 billion in lost benefits. In other words, the average employee actually donated $561 in "free" work to their employer by not using their vacation time.
The true loss to individual Americans, however, is far greater than this.
Though the number has been climbing for the past three years, Americans still only take 17.2 days of vacation per year -- a far cry from the long-term average of 20.3 days that Americans enjoyed from 1978-2000.
And of the average 17.2 vacation days Americans do take, just eight of those are spent traveling. It is not for lack of want: 84% of Americans say it is important to them to use their vacation time for travel. It should be. The small minority who are able to travel with all or most of their vacation time enjoy greater happiness in their lives. They report being 20% happier with their personal relationships and 56% happier with their health and well-being than those who travel with little or none of their vacation time.
Concern over the optics of being away from work contributes to a large share of Americans' unused vacation days. The employees most likely to leave vacation days on the table say the greatest barrier to taking time off is the fear that they will look replaceable.
But they may want to reconsider that fear. Those who travel more show greater evidence of success -- and enjoyment -- of their careers. Those who travel with all or most of their time are 28% happier with their companies and 24% happier with their jobs than those that travel with little to none of their vacation days. Frequent travelers are also 18% more likely to report receiving a promotion in the last two years.
Reclaiming those millions of days may feel insurmountable. But it isn't. Planning out vacation time further in advance makes employees more likely to use the days they earn and puts managers in a better position to say yes to requests for time off.
According to Project: Time Off's Power of Planning report, managers are near universal (91%) in saying they want to approve vacation requests, but 43% say they are sometimes unable to because their employees did not provide enough notice.
Employees who fear taking their vacation could put their job on the chopping block may want to know that the same study revealed that 88% of managers said employees who plan out their vacations for the year are being responsible and 85% agreed they were making it easier to schedule additional coverage.
America's travel deficit steals the experiences we should have and the memories we should make. It's time to realize the value of vacation days -- and put them to good use.
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