As we head into the end of another year, it’s time to take a closer look at the erosion of vacation time in the United States.
Americans have the dubious distinction of taking the shortest vacations in the industrialized world, when they get them at all. We pride ourselves on our hard work, but we forget that we are not machines. We need to rest and recharge our batteries to perform at our best, both at work and in the other aspects of our lives.
A 2013 Nielsen poll commissioned by Diamond Resorts International®, a leader in the movement for more vacation time, found that 52% of people did NOT take all their paid vacation days in the past year, leaving an average of 7.2 days unused. Additionally, the survey found that vacationers are nearly twice as likely to say they are happy, healthy and satisfied with their jobs as non-vacationers. That’s a big number when you are an HR director looking for ways to improve job engagement and reduce turnover. Counting paid holidays and various “PTO” programs that include sick leave, Americans earn an average of 16 paid days off each year, about a week less than any of our competitors. But even that number is deceptive.
About a quarter of Americans earn vacation time comparable to that which all Europeans or Australians take for granted. That number raises our overall average, but for the median worker, it’s a different story. A 2009 Opinion Research Corporation poll showed that typical Americans took only about a week off each year and if anything, that number has actually fallen slightly since then. Even more troubling perhaps, a quarter of American workers receive no paid vacation time at all.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country and one of only a handful in the world that do not require paid vacations by law. By contrast, all Europeans and workers in many other countries are guaranteed at least four weeks of paid time off.
We pay a high price for our inattention to time off. Several other countries, including Germany and France, are more productive per worker hour than we are, and we are the least healthy of all rich countries. Indeed, research from the Framingham Heart Studies and others show that women who do not vacation are up to 50 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease and men up to 30 percent. Additionally, people who do not take vacations are several times more likely to suffer from depression as those who take regular time off.
Seattle cardiologist Sarah Speck calls stress from overwork “the new tobacco.” She says that when she began her career three decades ago, most of her heart patients were in their 60s and 70s. Now she is seeing many more who are in their 40s and 50s. Her prescription for patients who come in exhibiting the symptoms of workplace stress: “Take two weeks and call me in the morning.”
Vacation time is of special interest to the millennial generation. As companies look for the best way to attract young talent, offering three weeks or so of vacation time is a great place to start. Indeed, many companies are beginning to see the light. Some are even offering extra salary to workers who take all their vacation time.
Our goal should not be “work-life balance,” but work-leisure balance. Work and life are not separate. Meaningful, hard, productive work is part of the good life. But we have become obsessed with work and averse to leisure time, which the ancient Greeks considered the essence of the good life and which modern science shows is essential to happiness and health.
Next year, let’s guarantee vacations for all Americans and make sure they take them!
John de Graaf is the President of Take Back Your Time (www.takebackyourtime.org), a Seattle-based non-profit challenging overwork and time poverty in America.