Time Off – Why America Gets it Wrong

When’s the last time you took a vacation? Just about anything counts – a trip to Europe, a trip to Wisconsin, a stay-cation in your own town, even a stretch of days where you didn’t leave the house. What I mean when I say vacation is “time off from work.” But, I mean totally off from work – no email, no virtual meetings, no running into the office to grab this or that, or weighing in on work-related decisions. Now, when’s the last time you took a vacation?

Americans are horrible at taking time off – the worst in the developed world, in fact. Part of this can be attributed to national policy: we are the only wealthy nation whose legislature guarantees zero paid vacation days. Japan is next worse – they ensure 10 paid days off each year for every working adult.  Employers in countries belonging to the European Union are required to pay their workers for 25 vacation days. Yep, five weeks off with pay per year.

US employers and economists of a certain ilk argue that not mandating paid vacation days gives us an edge over those other countries, but there is no proof to back those claims up. Per worker, countries in the EU are nearly exactly as productive as the US is, and among the countries in the EU, those with the most generous time off policies are actually much more productive than those whose citizens work more hours annually.

Before you start picketing Congress for vacation rights, though, you should know that Europeans’ average salaries are generally lower than their American counterparts – they earn roughly the same (currency-adjusted) hourly rate, but are paid for fewer of those hours. This brings up the other main reason why Americans are such lousy vacationers: priorities.

Undeniably, there is an active cult of busyness here in America. It’s a badge of honor to tell your friends and coworkers how “crazy busy” you are, isn’t it? Busy people must be successful, right? Bosses love busy employees, don’t they? I mean, who’s going to get the promotion – the guy who takes every single vacation day every year, or his counterpart down the hall who is always scrambling to burn her “use or lose” days in October and November? Well, actually the answer can depend on any number of things, with “level of perceived busyness” falling extremely low on the list.

Apart from wanting and trying to look busy, Americans are also obsessed with getting ahead. Working long hours, networking on weekends and taking the kids to their three sports and their dance or music lessons all has a payoff – getting ahead, being the best, not merely keeping up with, but blowing right past the Joneses. Higher paying jobs, better schools, bigger houses, more stuff to put in them, these are the reasons why many Americans haven’t taken a true vacation in years, if ever in their lives.

Aside from money and stuff, what if Americans just like to work more? Actually, under certain circumstances, it appears that we do. In a 2006 Harvard paper titled “Europeans Work to Live and Americans Live to Work,” the authors discovered that as the number of hours worked per week increased, Americans’ level of happiness rose, relative to their European counterparts’. When average hours worked were fewer than 40 hours per week, Europeans reported being much happier, but as the work-weeks grew longer, Americans caught up to, and then passed their European counterparts.

So what does all this mean for you? It means you should examine your priorities. A well curated life is one of careful choices. Is money more important to you than time? Do you love your job more than you love leisure activities? Would you be happier taking more time off or working fewer hours each week if it meant you’d have to adjust your lifestyle a bit? What would those adjustments look like? Would you replace some activities that cost money with others that are free, and would those free activities be equally or more enjoyable? Asking these kinds of questions is a great way to start examining your priorities and maximizing happiness.

Oh, and if you do go on vacation this year, leave the computer at home.



  1. Coincidentally, just saw the following news item this morning on The Backlot:

    “Europe has never been as serious about work as the U.S., and I’ve always been jealous. VW put a block on employees phones a couple years ago to keep them from answering email outside the office on their own time. Now Daimler is taking it a step further, and if you put a vacation responder on your email, it sends the recipient the notice, then promptly deletes the email so that you don’t have to play catch-up when you return from vacation. Quality of life still means something in Europe, while more U.S. companies expect 50-60 hours/week from their employees for the same cash.”

    Source: http://www.thebacklot.com/meme-scream-bex-taylor-smith-sam-smith-nond-doctor-who/08/2014/

    Article about Daimler: http://www.engadget.com/2014/08/17/daimler-deletes-out-of-office-email/

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