I can haz vacation?

I read an article on the Atlantic recently which discussed the lack of vacation time in America. Looking at countries like Germany, Australia and France, 20+ paid vacation days plus a handful of state holidays is the norm. Here in Canada, 10 paid vacation days plus 8 statutory holidays are required by law (though some employers will pay out the money in lieu of formal time off). In the United States? Zero.

At my workplace in Vancouver BC, Canada, I get 20 days of vacation, 3 days between Christmas and New Years, plus 11 statutory holidays. And that’s just in my first year at this job! I always thought that 3 weeks of vacation was a minimum amount for an educated, semi-professional working individual. That’s why I was so insulted when a company I recently interviewed with offered me only two weeks of vacation! But perhaps they were closer to the norm than I realized. After looking at this chart, I was surprised to see how little vacation is required here in North America, particular in the states. Clearly, my expectations did not stack up to reality!

However, I believe that vacation time is an important component of a healthy work-life balance. I think we can all agree that countries such as Canada, Germany and Australia, among others, are relatively healthy economically, even in these tough times. We’ve all been hit by the recent economic downturns, and emerged scathed but intact. The United States, while certainly an economic powerhouse, has not been spared in the recent recessions despite having a workforce that works more hours and receives less paid benefits over the course of the year. So what’s up?

There’s a lot of history to be found in the idea of the traditional 40 hour work week. I’ll let you google it yourself if interested, but a lot of research has shown that working over 40 hours a week does not result in an increase in productivity. Each additional hour that you work, results in less and less net work done. In other words, the conversion from time to work completed is not linear. It’s a curve that has an optimal range that begins to drop after 40 hours.

There are similar productivity incentives to providing vacations. When workers are rested, they can return to their jobs fresh, with new ideas and the energy to innovate. In fact, some leading companies value the idea of “recharging” their employees so much that they pay them to go on vacation! When we work day in and day out, we get compartmentalized, boxed in, and fall into habits. By getting away, enjoying our family and friends, and recharging, we are actually more valuable to our companies in the long term.

So why doesn’t the United States buy into the idea of vacation time as a whole? Some companies do, certainly, but not all. I have a colleague who recently completed a PhD in neuroscience and informatics. He received an offer to work in the states, with a decent salary, benefits… and 2 weeks vacation. Two weeks for a guy who can call himself “doctor” ? What!

I think a lot of it has to do with work place culture. Some people feel like they are “on the clock” as long as there is wifi or computer access. At a former workplace, I felt this way as well! My boss would become annoyed with me when I didn’t answer emails while away on vacation. Other people may be afraid of the negative impact of taking vacations – perhaps their colleagues will out-perform them while they are away, or their absence will show their boss that they are not needed. Of course, in an ideal workplace, neither of these would occur! But the bad part is, they do. And when people are not motivated to take their vacations, companies will be less motivated to provide extensive vacations as a benefit.

Are the majority of workplaces in North America so negative? Do you take your vacation time?

Posted in: Career and Work

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