Many Americans get frustrated when they hear about people who work for European companies; those lucky souls with upwards of six weeks paid vacation, not to mention generous family leave and a long slate of national holidays.
But the relatively stingy vacation policies of American companies aren’t the whole story as to why Americans take relatively less vacation time overall. Many Americans fortunate enough to get paid vacation don’t even use up all the days they do have. That can be bad for employees and companies alike.
Take Kristine Donly and Ted Phillips, who have been colleagues at a Washington, D.C., museum for more than two decades. Their long tenure earns them ample vacation time by American standards: five weeks. They have much in common. But how they use their vacation, or don’t, is what sets them apart. Far apart.
Donly says she uses all of her time every year.
“If [managers] want me to perform at my best, then they should be happy I’m taking my vacation time,” she explains.
Phillips, on the other hand, carries over 240 hours of leave every year, the maximum allowed. He takes only the leave he stands to lose. And even then, he often keeps working remotely on days when he’s technically off.
“When I have taken longer vacations, I come back and find that the work load has piled up,” he says.
Both say their bosses support work-life balance. But Phillips believes avoiding vacation is important to his performance. Donly believes the opposite, just as strongly.
Many HR professionals agree with Donly. Workers who take vacation come back refreshed and productive. That’s not just good for employees. It’s also good for company profits. But these days, more and more Americans are moving in Phillips’ direction.
“There’s this culture of the work martyr,” explains Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics. “People feel they are honored for not taking all of their time or, you know, somewhat looked down upon for taking all of their time off.”
Sacks has researched this topic over the years, finding that the average American now leaves five vacation days on the table every year. His clients in the travel industry unsurprisingly take a dim view of this trend.
Apart from workplace culture, America’s dicey health care system plays a role too. Many workers horde their vacation to use as sick days or family leave.
Merely offering vacation days isn’t enough if a company is serious about being supportive of workers taking time off. Managers need to make sure workers can hand off their tasks to colleagues when they go away. And they need to set an example by taking vacations themselves.
Colleagues can help set that example too.
“I would definitely say that Ted should take two weeks off and have a true vacation,” Donly says.
And in fact, Phillips is considering a trip to Spain. But he can’t promise that he’ll completely disconnect from his work email.
“Um, some habits are hard to break,” he says.
Click below to hear John de Graaf, President and Co-Founder of “Take Back Your Time,” talk about reclaiming vacation time from the work place.
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