It might seem like a good idea at the time, but foregoing holidays makes the year very long and dreary / PA

Half of working parents in Britain don't take their annual leave. But being stuck at the office is bad for our health and our families

Ever found yourself on holiday rushing back to the hotel to check your email or cursing the lack of phone reception on your deserted beach/luxury villa? Chances are, if you are a working parent trying to squeeze in a bit of quality time en famille, this is often how it can end up.

And that's if you even manage to get away in the first place. New research by Thomson Holidays shows that a staggering 49 per cent of working parents don't use up all of their holiday allowance, and that one in five of us simply can't take enough time off work to get away. We are becoming a nation where the notion of a fortnight away from it all is fast becoming a thing of the past.

And it could not come at a worse time. A recent Parliamentary Report concluded that our increasing reluctance to take time off actually has a detrimental effect on the economy. The report called for parents to make more of an effort to get away and suggested that time off together should be placed high on the political agenda.

"This seems like typically un-thought-out, out-of-touch rubbish," says Rebecca Taylor, web editor and mother of one. "The reason families don't spend enough holiday time together is because we are all desperately clinging to the jobs we do have in order to earn just enough to pay our huge childcare bills. Some mothers I know haven't managed a proper fortnight off since they gave birth."

Admittedly, at the moment the odds do seem fairly heavily stacked against us luxuriating on long foreign holidays – longer working hours, fewer staff, heavier workloads, shorter contracts with unpaid holidays – the list goes on.

Fortysomething Nicola Chappell, who has worked in TV for the past 20 years, says in that time, she has witnessed an almost complete transformation of attitudes. "I always make sure I take every single day of holiday that's owed to me but I've noticed that younger people in the office don't seem to take any. It's freelance culture – they're far too scared of losing their jobs to go away."

Katy Gould, a gallery curator agrees. "It is a struggle to take all my holiday in terms of balancing workload and deadlines against when school holidays fall. I usually carry over around 5-8 days unused leave a year. But I think this tendency is even more prevalent with people who don't have children and don't have a practical necessity to take leave."

Such reluctance to take time off doesn't take long to become the norm in a workplace. In the UK the legal minimum entitles employees to 5.6 weeks of annual holiday a year but this can, and very often does, include bank holidays. Currently there seems to be a culture creeping in where we are increasingly aware that our co-workers may be looking at us thinking, "What? Off on holiday again?"

Dr Martina Klett-Davies, a family sociologist, believes this is a very important factor. "You can have all the laws in the world, but if the culture isn't amenable things won't happen. So the policies may be there but if they are not reinforced, or your colleagues don't think it's OK for you to take your holiday, then it's not going to happen."

She thinks our increasing reluctance to take proper holidays is directly related to the state of the economy. "We are living in an age of austerity. It becomes more prevalent to hold on to your job for love nor money and if that means forgoing holiday to do so, so be it."

She points out that many families now find themselves doing "shift parenting" where the six-week school break in the summer is covered by both parents taking it in turns to do childcare. "It's basically separate parenting, where the family is no longer a family. School holidays are too long and parents can't take enough time off to cover them."

Technology is also a big factor. Twenty years ago it was possible to go away and forget about what was going on in the office because it simply wasn't that easy to stay connected. Nowadays it's a different story. "When I'm on holiday I always check my email every day," says Jackie Allerton, a partner in a legal aid firm. "There is not an expectation to do this, although I don't know anyone who does not."

Interestingly, of all the people I spoke to it was the City worker who was happiest with her entitlement. "I think people are generally very good at taking their holidays here," says Marnie Chatham, "but it might have a lot to do with working for a Swiss company – they seem very keen for everyone to take their time due, plus we can even buy extra holiday if we want."

Equally, teacher Melanie Roberts finds she has plenty of time off, although this in itself can bring another whole set of problems. "As a teacher I have all the holiday I could ever want. In fact I sometimes find myself wishing that instead of having to entertain four children at home that I could be at work. Maybe that is part of the reason why people don't take all their holiday, because it is such hard work keeping the children entertained. The summer can be a real struggle."

It's even more difficult for men. According to the Thomson Holidays research, only 51 per cent of 8-12-year-olds are happy with the amount of time they spend with their dad. Matthew Roberts is a self-employed electrician and although he manages to take a fortnight off every summer and a week at Christmas, that's it for the whole year. "The reality is I would love to take more time off," he says, "but I just can't turn down the work."

Sarah Cumin, a nurse, says the tendency among men to take even less holiday is annoying because the onus then falls on the mother. "My husband wastes about nine days a year because he says he can't do his job if he takes it all," she says. "It would be much easier for me if he would take time off in the holidays particularly."

So whether we are heading the way of workaholic nations such as America and Japan, where they seem to get by on just a few days a year, remains to be seen. But the signs are already here. "Having worked in HR for many years it is amazing how many people are willing to lose holidays or would rather be paid than take time off," says Tanya Milson. "This year in particular I have noticed a lot more unused holiday. It seems we are living in a world where none of us simply ever have enough time to get all our work done."