It is no secret that Americans work more hours and have fewer paid vacations than any other developed country. For example, while European Union nations have a legally mandated two-week vacation policy and most workers get far more, the United States has no laws requiring paid vacation. Typically, employees have to work at a large U.S. company for 10 years before they get 15 days of paid vacation. And that figure does not take into account the approximately 25 percent of all workers who get no paid vacation. And the discrepancy between the U.S. and the EU does not stop there. Recent media reports have observed that many Americans are not even taking the little bit of vacation they have accrued.
For example, an Expedia study found that 35 percent of employees polled didn’t take all their time off because of job pressures. According to that survey, the average employed American sacrificed three days of vacation, up from the two days they gave up in 2003.
So, if employers are offering paid vacation, however paltry, why are people not taking it all? Some people report fearing for their job. If they can take vacation, they reason, they must be dispensable. And certainly some companies have a culture of overwork that leaves those who take time off feeling disloyal or underachieving. Often, not taking vacation also comes down to logistical difficulties. People report not taking vacations because either it is too difficult to coordinate schedules with two working parents and children in many activities or because they juggle multiple projects at work and there is never a good time to leave.
Work/Non-Work Lines Collapsing
Michael Pratt, professor of business administration and James F. Towey faculty fellow, suggests that the shrinking vacation is part of a larger trend of blurring lines between work and family.
“It’s getting harder and harder to figure out when we’re on or off work,” says Pratt. “Work and family life boundaries are collapsing, driven largely by technology. So even when you are on vacation, you check your email or cell phone. Does that really count as being off work? Others take their families on business trips. Does this count as being ‘on the clock’?”
Pratt, who studies the costs and benefits of teleworking notes that the blurring of the lines leads to a central paradox of how we work today.
“People I have spoken to say, ‘On the one hand, working from home is great for work/family balance, and on the other hand I can never escape from work.’ And both are true. You get the flexibility to get your kids from school and take them to a soccer game, but the price you pay is you get up at 4 a.m. to do a conference call with people in China.”
So if, in fact, vacation time is becoming extinct, is this a crisis, as many fear, or simply the latest stage in the evolution of the workplace? The answer to that depends, it would seem, on whom you ask and on people’s individual circumstances.
In general, people think vacation should be vacation and work should be work, but they often make exceptions, especially for themselves.
For example, sometimes people prefer to check their emails while on vacation because of the consequences they face when they return. Pratt admits that he sometimes checks his e-mails while on vacation so that he does not have to “deal with hundreds of emails that can accumulate over a week or two.” He further notes, “If you are going to be so stressed out about what you’re going to come back to, then it’s not really a relaxing vacation and maybe you’re better off checking email while you’re gone.”
Which, of course, returns us to the question of whether that’s really a vacation or not.
Still, given the dramatic changes at the workplace-what with the advent of Internet and mobile technology-perhaps it should not be surprising that the nature of vacation also might change.
Judith Gebauer, assistant professor of management information systems, studies the uses of mobile technology in the workplace. She has found in several surveys that people appreciate the flexibility that Internet access and cell phones gives them. If they are checking their messages on vacation that is often a way to feel more relaxed about being off duty, not less, says Gebauer.
“Many people we spoke to say mobile technology makes them more productive and efficient,” she says. “This is particularly true for people in supervisory jobs who want to know what’s going on and to be kept in the loop, to react quickly when necessary. This technology also gives them flexibility to work from anywhere.”
People, being the adaptable creatures they are, have changed both how they work (more from home or the beach) and how they vacation (with Blackberry in hand). Research done by the Travel Industry Association indicates that many people are taking shorter vacations, sometimes closer to home. Consequently, the industry is pushing more regional markets geared toward people who are looking for a quick trip either by car or short flight. Vacations that are tacked on to a business trip have also become more common.
Does Busyness Backfire on Business?
But how does this vacation deprivation impact American productivity?
There is evidence that taking breaks from work helps create healthier, safer, and more productive employees. Research conducted by the Families and Work Institute (FWI), which has been studying work/life balance for almost 20 years, found that overworked employees are more likely to make mistakes and to be angry at their employers and at colleagues who do not work as hard. Employees who described themselves as overworked reported feeling higher stress levels, experiencing symptoms of clinical depression, and having poorer health overall.
“It’s true that if you work 80 hours a week and take no vacation and your German counterpart works 40 hours a week with six weeks of vacation you’ll be more productive, but not necessarily twice as productive,” says Pratt. “At some point there are diminishing returns. And you have to think that getting away and relaxing will be better for you in the long run in terms of both health and productivity.”
The FWI survey found just that. Employees who do take a higher percentage of vacation days to just relax and enjoy themselves (as opposed to, for example, taking care of a sick relative), even when they feel overworked on the job, are significantly less likely to return to work feeling overwhelmed by all they have to do after taking their longest vacation. Those that feel overworked, and work on vacation, do not return from vacation more relaxed and energized and do feel overwhelmed by all the work that has piled up in their absence. The study concludes that encouraging employees to take vacation time to simply relax might enhance the impact of vacation time and would benefit both employees and employers.
From a strictly medical perspective, one could argue that not taking vacations to recharge is stressful, and medical evidence of the health consequences of stress is well-documented. Stress, no matter the source, causes the body to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone, which has been implicated in heart disease. Perhaps Americans-particularly upper-level managers and other “knowledge workers”- are hurting themselves and their company by not taking their allotted vacation and/or bringing the office with them when they do vacation.
Rest & Recharge
While the current blurring of work and non-work may be stressful, it may also be the reality of today’s workplace. The old practice of working from 9 to 5, with two weeks in the Adirondacks – if it ever was the norm – may be extinct.
But Pratt notes that, as the line between work and non-work continues to blur, some companies are stepping up and becoming more involved in workers’ family life by providing everything from a concierge service to dry cleaning pick-up to child care, elder care, and even doggie daycare. Some firms even offer a kind of marriage counseling.
“The positive take on that is that it shows that companies care about their employees and want to help them,” says Jeff Ericksen, assistant professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois. “The more cynical view is that companies want to make sure their employees can work every waking second.”
FWI conducts an annual study of best practices in terms of work/life balance. The 2006 report, titled “Work That Works,” found that the best companies have recognized and embraced the need for flexibility and autonomy. Many of the companies studied by FWI saw dramatically increased employee retention and profits when they instituted policies like having employees take however much vacation they wanted, making sure people took some vacation, and not keeping track of where or when employees work, only that they made their deadlines.
But this approach of flexibility and autonomy has its own share of pitfalls.
“Within the field of strategic human resources, people talk about the growing importance of autonomy in the workforce and having the workforce buy into the vision and mission of the firm,” says Ericksen. “But part of the reason people may not be vacationing is that, working in these settings, people are more motivated to go to work and, if given the chance, will essentially live at work. So, you’ve created this tension and a culture where people start not taking care of themselves. And within that type of culture, overwork can become a status symbol, and then it takes courage to take a vacation.”
It is up to both the employer and the employee to make sure that the employees take time to rest and recharge, says Joy C. Harper, a 1994 business administration graduate, who has worked with Procter & Gamble for 13 years.
“I really do try to take all my vacation every year,” she says.
She and her husband, Myles, who has a less flexible and less generous vacation policy, try to take a driving trip once a year with their three children; however, for those vacation days she has that her husband does not she tries to “do something nice for myself or just pick up the kids and do something fun with them. I think the relaxation factor on vacation is affected by the state in which you left things at work and by what could be in store for you when you get back,” she says with a laugh. “The tighter I left things, the more quickly I relax.”
Harper also keeps work issues in perspective. “You know the building will still be standing when you get back; the issues will still be there.”
Perhaps, with the increasing awareness of the bottom line benefit of flexibility in the workplace, with EU countries setting an example, and employees from both Generations X and Y demanding a more balanced life, the scale will tip back more toward valuing vacation as much as work.
There is a strong desire to get our lives back in balance. One indication of that desire is the efforts of groups like Work to Live, an organization founded by Joe Robinson (editor of Escape magazine), to push for a federally mandated, minimum-three-week vacation for every American worker.
Still, it will be an uphill battle because the “enemy” is no one particular person or organization, but a guerilla-style mindset that is difficult to fight against. Getting vacation depends not only on employers offering it, but on employees taking it. And that will require everyone to re-examine their “overwork” ethic and learn when to say when.
Although businesses are not keen on the idea of federal legislation, the advantage is that the “playing field” will be even. And, as Robinson notes, “If six-day work weeks and no time off was considered so cruel in the 19th century that labor laws were required to make things better, perhaps it is time once again to get the government involved.”
Perspectives Magazine – Fall 2007 Issue (PDF file)
Professor Judith Gebauer – Faculty Profile
Professor Michael Pratt – Faculty Profile