Americans used to take time off and kick back during the summer months. Not so any more. In bad economic times, many people are too afraid to leave the workplace for a few weeks or even just a few days. Those who already feel apprehensive about their job security don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Especially when many businesses undergo downsizing or restructuring, employees are extremely hesitant to leave work behind.
Most Americans Don’t Take All Their Paid Vacations
For some, it can be more stressful to be absent from the office than to stay put. “People are worried that a temporary vacation could lead to permanent time off,” wrote Cindy Goodman, a business columnist at the Miami Herald. “The people who still have a job are really feeling overwhelmed and overworked. But they’re afraid to take vacations […] at a time when they need them more than ever.”
Not all employees actually believe they would be fired for using their hard-earned vacation time. But many do fear that the company could come to consider their position as redundant, that co-workers could sabotage their projects or take otherwise advantage of their absence, or that important decisions could be made without their knowledge and input, among other concerns.
Many older workers still think of vacations as a luxury that does not sit well with their conservative work ethic. There is a long-held belief that working harder than anyone else is what has made America great. And then, of course, there are the hard-charging, never-tiring, always-doing-what-it-takes workaholics who think that taking breaks is only for sissies. “Forfeiting vacations can be a ‘macho thing,’ said Mitchell Lee Marks, a psychologist, management consultant and president of JoiningForces.org, a consulting firm in San Francisco.
Today, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not have labor laws that include minimum leave. The European Union, for example, requires that all workers take a minimum of four weeks vacation time every year. Many member states exceed that mandate. Those numbers are unfathomable for most Americans.
Expedia.com, a travel reservation company, conducted a survey that compared the vacation habits of citizens around the world. According to this research, 34 percent of Americans don’t take the full vacation time they earn each year. By contrast, only 22 percent of French and 24 percent of German workers don’t use up their allotted time. Only the Japanese vacation less than we do – just 8 percent take off every day they’re owed.
There are multiple reasons why Americans are less inclined to enjoy their holidays. “In countries where vacation time is mandated by law, it’s not something that people think about in terms of their relationship with their employer,” said Jennifer Schramm, a manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization that serves human resources professionals. “In the U.S., our vacation allotment is part of the employment relationship. Given that our paid leave is closely tied to our relationship to our employer, our willingness to take advantage of it is likelier to change in response to external factors, especially the economy or the job market,” she added.
That doesn’t mean that workers here would not like more paid time off than they are getting from their jobs – if they get any at all. Survey after survey has shown that Americans are dying to have more quality time for themselves and their families, even if it would mean a cut in pay.
Still, “sacrificing your vacation won’t necessarily save your job,” said Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life,” who is also an advocate for a federal paid-leave law. “I talked to a woman who worked at a company for 25 years and had five or six weeks of paid leave. She only used three, four or five days a year – and she got laid off like everyone else. This does not insulate you from layoffs. It does leave you wondering why you gave up your life,” said Robinson.
Even those who dare to venture off once in a while don’t always know how to separate themselves entirely from their work place. Many workers find it unthinkable to leave their laptops and smart phones permanently switched off during vacations. “Because of modern technology, it has become almost impossible to completely disengage ourselves from the office,” said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” “The border between what is work and what is personal is more porous than ever. Whereas the transition from working to going on vacation used to be like an on-off switch, it’s now more of a dimmer switch.”
Not everyone thinks that “working vacations” are a good idea. “Workers who don’t take vacations hurt themselves and their companies,” said Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of “The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World.” “Overworked employees get sick more often and place themselves at risk for long-term illnesses, such as heart disease. Companies suffer because their employees are too tired or ill to be productive.”
Today, many companies understand better the importance of a health-promoting work environment and establish their policies accordingly. But often it is easier to make structural changes than to overcome the habits of individuals. If people don’t know how to silence their inner taskmaster once in a while, encouraging flexibility and offering more options won’t be enough. For many, it’s a cultural issue, or perhaps it’s generational, according to Dan Ryan, head of a business consulting firm in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m a baby boomer… and I’m accustomed to working. My kids have a different perspective. They’re more likely to take a vacation,” he said. Well, as they say, you can teach even an old dog new tricks.