There’s no easy way to say this, so here it is: Americans suck at taking time off from work. Somewhere along the way our strong work ethic has been twisted into a truly unhealthy inability to take time off. US workers already start off with less paid vacation than most countries, and an inexplicable percentage of Americans don’t take all their paid vacation time in any given year. This is not something to proud of. The benefits of vacation time to individuals and the companies that employ them is well documented. How can this deplorable situation be fixed?
Time Off by the Numbers
Take a look a Wikipedia’s page with a list of minimum annual leave by country. You’ll see three columns, one for paid vacation days per year, paid holidays per year, and the grand total of paid leave days per year. You will no doubt be envious of the dozens and dozens of countries where workers get between 20-30 days or more of paid leave every year, including Germany (30 days), India (27 days), France (36 days) and the United Kingdom (28 days).
While you’re looking at the United Kingdom, you might notice the United States on the next row the table, where there is a big fat 0 in all three columns. What’s up with that? People do get paid time off in the US, right? But here’s the thing about this Wikipedia list: This is a list of paid time off guaranteed by law. And there’s the rub. There is no legal requirement in the US forcing private companies to give any set amount of paid vacation or holidays. None. Zero. Zip. Nil. So we’re already starting off from a disadvantage in the US, where we’re all made to feel like we only get any paid vacation or time off by the grace and generosity of our employers.
The average American worker is granted about 10 days of paid vacation per year. So much for the generosity of employers. And that’s an average, which means while some get more, plenty of others get less. In fact, one in four (yes that’s 25%) American workers get no paid time off at all.
But now to add insult to injury, here’s the kicker: According to the US Travel Association, for those American workers who have the gift of paid time off so generously bestowed upon them, fully 52% of them don’t use all of it! In fact, the collective American workforce left 705 million unused vacation days on the table in 2017. To make matters worse, there’s the relatively new concept of a “workcation” where people take a vacation but keep working while they’re away. All of this begs the question: What in the world is wrong with us?
Whether the concept of a workcation strikes you as the dumbest idea ever or appeals to you on some level depends on a variety of factors. The US Travel Association’s latest study dealt with the workcation idea, which they view with a very skeptical eye since the group’s mission is to encourage people to take a healthy amount of time off from work. The study surveyed 4,349 American workers at least 18 years old who were working more than 35 hours per week and received at least some paid time off from their employer. Of those surveyed, only 29% found the idea of a workcation appealing, 70% called the concept unappealing, and only 10% had actually taken a workcation. It’s also interesting to look at the generational angle in the data. Among Millennials, 39% find the idea appealing, whereas only 28% of Gen Xers and a mere 18% of Boomers thought the idea was appealing. The report concludes, “Workcations may have value, but they are not a substitute for actual vacations.”
Media Reaction to the Workcation Concept
As you might imagine, opinions are divided about whether or not the workcation is a good idea or a bad idea. Here’s how some media outlets and individuals have weighed in:
- CNN Business: This 2014 CNN article noted that when approached as a flexible concept, it can be quite useful. One example was a Glassdoor.com employee who took a five-day trip where he worked during the Wednesday travel day on the plane, worked a full day on Thursday in his destination, then didn’t work at all the rest of the trip from Friday-Monday. So, he enjoyed a wonderful 5-day trip and only used two days of paid vacation.
- Wall Street Journal: The WSJ’s 2015 article seemed to be encouraging people to give the concept a try.
- Vanity Fair: Also in 2015, Tina Nguyen wrote that while she could see the value in some situations, she thought the name was really dumb (just call it working remotely) and was somewhat horrified at the idea of a parent missing out on key moments with family during a trip where they kept working a full schedule.
- The Muse: Erin Greenwald extolled the virtues of the workcation when handled properly and not taken in lieu of real vacations. If you can work remotely and enjoy a great change of scenery, why not? She also gives a bunch of tips for how to successfully set one up for yourself.
- FastCompany: This 2017 article by Stephanie Vozza is full of tips and strategies for taking a power workcation where the change in location allows you to hyper-focus in on plowing through one or several specific projects while still giving yourself opportunities to enjoy your destination.
But the fact that we’re even discussing the possible merits of a workcation show how broken our relationship is to time off from work.
Is the US a Nation of Workaholics?
The short answer to this question is clearly YES, but why? For those willing to experiment with the idea of workcation, some report that they fear how taking “real” time off will make them look more replaceable to their employers. Others say they have such a stressful workload that they simply can’t take a real vacation, but they could at least do some of their work in a more relaxing, less anxiety-ridden environment. Yet others are convinced that everything would totally fall apart while they were away from work for a real vacation. Whatever the reasons and rationales, we are definitely a nation of workaholics, which is a very dangerous place to be. Why? Because it pushes people towards workplace burnout.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently brought new attention to the problem of workplace burnout. In the recently-released 11th revision to the International Classification of Diseases, burnout is more clearly defined than in the previous version. It’s not a medical condition or disease, but could become a contributing factor to both. Here’s how it’s described:
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
People need real time off from work, not workcations, to experience the full benefits of vacation. They need to truly disconnect from work, rest, relax, recharge, and come back with new energy and focus. Companies that want to keep their workers fully engaged and motivated need to take steps that encourage or even require them to take all of the paid leave to which they are entitled, and not for workcations.
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