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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34 Comments

  1. I work in a place that has an Earned Day Off schedule, so we work 9 hours Mon-Thurs and one week we work 8 hours on Friday then the next week we have Friday off. I don’t know if I can go back to a regular Mon-Fri!

    In BC, you have to work for an entire year in order to earn that 2 week minimum of vacation, too. Good thing many employers don’t work to the minimum rules. I agree that vacation is hugely valuable and lately I am more and more dedicated to ensuring that I have time for me!

  2. I absolutely take my vacation time. You’re lucky if you find a place with 2 weeks paid vacation in the US, but if it is indeed one of your benefits then that is the norm. Interesting stats about the 40 hour workweek…I’ve heard it said often that Americans work hard, but not smart.

    • CF says:

      Yeah I was really surprised, but it does seem like 2 weeks is the norm, if you get any at all. It’s too bad really – for myself, I’m always better at work after a short break.

  3. Modest Money says:

    I’ve never had a job where they provide more than the bare minimum for paid time off. Even then I would usually end up just cashing it out. Really it probably wasn’t the best decision, but it’s tough to say no to extra cash. I guess my problem is that I usually end up working for smaller companies who just can’t afford too many employee perks.

    • CF says:

      I always cashed it out when I worked in retail. My hours were so sporadic anyways, it never felt like I was working that much, so the vacation money always felt like a small bonus.

  4. CF, two weeks is basically the norm here in the US. Since I’ve worked longer than 5 years, I now get 3 weeks. This depends on the company, but is pretty comparable when I talk with friends.

    There is a lot of negativity associated with taking your vacations, especially here in Michigan. There’s both blue collar and white collar mentalities that you’re some kind of super hero if you work late every night and never take a vacation.

    I don’t buy into it. I LOVE time off, and take it as much as possible!

    • CF says:

      It’s really too bad that people are looked upon negatively for taking vacations. I’ve never felt like that was the case in my previous work places, but I have felt like we were still expected to do some work while on vacation. I love my vacation as well and I definitely don’t let any go to waste.

  5. In my experience, smaller companies have less generous vacation policies because it’s harder to shift work around when people are gone. Would I love more vacation days? Of course! But the company I work for provides me flexibility in other ways that makes up for it a bit. (ie. sick days aren’t counted against you, informal flex time, etc…)

    • CF says:

      True! Certain jobs like retail or services also often prefer to pay out the vacation time as part of your wages.

      Flex time is almost as good as vacation time. :) I like being able to make a doctor or dentist appointment and not have to worry about whether I will get it approved.

  6. I am usually good about taking mine – but I’m a little behind this year. I think the worst trend is working while on vacation – so, you’re off, but still checking your email every day and even taking calls..

    • CF says:

      It’s such a hard habit to break! Especially with smart phones becoming the norm, checking email is so easy, many people just do it when they are bored.

  7. In U.S. employers just turn the blind eye. It’s too difficult for people to actually use their head to THINK about the benefits of letting their workers go on a paid vacation. Call it stupidity, carelessness, ignorance or all of the above – we love to tune out actual reasoning. There are so many studies that say this and that about the benefits of not overworking, working fewer days, fewer hours, taking more vacations, keeping your employees happy yet we’d much rather ignore all of them. After all more hours put in = more work being done! = American mindset. haha.

    • CF says:

      Exactly – the longer you over-work your workers, the more you actually end up paying them to do the same amount of work, because (surprise surprise) people get worn out and tired.

  8. At my job I get 21 days off (vacation/sick/whatever) per year. Which is nice but we have 45 hour work weeks resulting in 32ish more days worked vs a 40 hour work weeks which is not so nice.

    It’s nice to know that there are at least studies out there that prove working longer hours doesn’t lead to more productivity, even though we still do it.

    • CF says:

      It always seems like there’s a trade-off doesn’t it? I know that at my job, even though we only “have” to work a certain number of hours, we’re still expected to work until “everything” is done because we’re salaried. I probably end up working more my share on many weeks.

  9. jefferson says:

    There was a period about a 10-15 years ago when companies in America were going out of their way to make themselves stand out as a “great place to work”.. But as the economy hit the skids, companies realized that the tables had turned and they now had 50 applicants for every opening.

    “Getting away” is so good for morale.. Whenever I get a break, even for a long weekend.. I come back refreshed and ready to rock and roll..

    • CF says:

      I guess like paychecks, benefits also suffer when there are more applicants than jobs. It’s unfortunate that the benefit of giving vacations to workers is not easily measured.

  10. Liquid says:

    I wouldn’t want to work at a place where my boss expects me to answer emails while I’m on vacation. That’s a little unfair. I think it’s healthy to take some time off work every now and then. The company I work for makes us use our vacation days rather than pay us out. Looking forward to our new holiday in BC next year.

  11. Ya I only get 2 weeks and that seems to be the norm for starting vacation, then usually after you stay 5 years you get another week, with a cap at 5 weeks. I definitely wish companies would offer their employees more vacation time because it’s true, it’s to the benefit of everyone!

  12. I have a similar amount of vacation as you and I take every minute of it. I really do need that break away. It keeps me saine and more productive. I can’t wait until I can get more time off.

    • CF says:

      Me too! I don’t know if I can stay at the same company long enough to start getting more vacation, but it’s definitely a tempting reason to try and stick around.

  13. We are pretty much forced to take our vacations. It’s frowned upon if we don’t. But it does put us behind in our work which is a bit frustrating, even though we have vacation coverage.

    • CF says:

      When I worked in forex, employees were actually forced to take vacations – the idea being, was that if you regularly took time off, you would not be available to run/monitor any scams to steal money from the company. :S

  14. I only get 2 weeks, but at my company you get an extra week for every 5 years you are with the company so that’s something, though I hope my next job offers more than two weeks (though I won’t hold my breath on that one). I think vacation time is so important. I always feel way more refreshed and motivated to work when I come back, but I also make sure to completely shut off my access to work when I am on holiday.

    • CF says:

      Everyone really does need a good vacation once in a while. I am okay with my 2 weeks + 1 week and a bit at Christmas time, but I’m definitely asking for more when I get my review.

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