The average American employee gets two weeks of vacation time per year. Three if they’re lucky. In the good ol’ USA, there’s no law that says employers have to offer their employees any paid vacation time at all. That in and of itself is a problem — especially when many nations around the world give employees 4 or 5 weeks of paid time off, if not more, and are still functioning just fine. But there’s an even bigger problem in our society if employees who have paid time off can’t even use it.
A recent piece I read on Matador titled “Why Americans need to slow down and make travel a priority” really spoke to me. Whether you enjoy traveling or not isn’t the issue if you’re not even able to take a real vacation.
The problem with Americans not using vacation days
Prime vacation season is upon us and many of us are looking forward to a week (2 or 3 if you’re French) somewhere nice this summer to relax and recharge with family and friends. We cherish our vacation time and do our best to use it, but even when on vacation, sometimes it’s impossible to fully unwind. Or worse, sometimes we can’t even find the time to take vacation due to our demanding work schedules and employers’ expectations.
The Matador piece I referenced above writes, “We don’t take time off because we feel too busy to leave our lives and because we fear falling behind with our workload. We are a culture that measures success based on productivity, output, and hustle.”
I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing (probably bad), but how we deal with these cultural norms can absolutely be positive or negative.
Do we sacrifice other areas of our lives to prioritize work? Do we take time to unwind and do things for ourselves and not the corporation? Do we have a life outside of work? Are we able to actually use our vacation days each year? And if not, why not? Is that OK?
My experience in Corporate America
Right after graduating from college, I worked in sales for a little over a year. While I had vacation days, I often felt anxious about taking more than a few days off in a row. Why? Because not being in the office made it harder to hit my sales goals that month. If we didn’t hit our goals, management would make our lives miserable. So the pressure to not use vacation was there even if I had days I could technically use. Coworkers felt the same way.
Later, I left that position and started at a new firm in a different role. I had 23 days of PTO to use each year which looked great on paper, but my bank of days included all paid time off grouping sick and personal days in with the vacation. So if you caught the flu and had to use 3 days, you’d deduct those 3 from the total bank of PTO. Have a doctor’s appointment? Deduct those hours. If you never got sick or took a personal day, you could use all 23 for vacation but most people didn’t have that luxury.
It certainly says something about American culture when many of us can’t even use our small allotment of vacation days.
Busting our butts at work is something many of us do because it’s what is expected of us and what we’re used to. But it’s so important to take time for ourselves.
American work culture makes it so incredibly difficult in some cases.
Just unplugging and forgetting all about work can do a body and mind good. If you want to use your time off to travel, keep in mind the travel doesn’t have to be exotic or expensive. A quick weekend trip to a nearby destination can be just as beneficial as somewhere far away.
What happens when we don’t take vacation? And what makes a life complete?
We hear of people experiencing burnout and being unhappy in their careers. Would more vacation time fix any of this? Maybe a little?
Work sometimes has a funny way of ruling our lives even though most of us consider what we do outside of work to be more important.
One part of the Matador piece that stuck with me was this:
“Why shouldn’t leading a complete and present human life be considered a successful and fulfilling use of our time on this earth?”
For some of us maybe we’d like to look back on our lives and say we were really good at our jobs and that our work was something that fulfilled us. But others don’t want an all-consuming career and would rather spend tons of time with their families and friends and have experiences with memories that will last a lifetime.
Can’t we have both?
Why don’t we use our paid time off?
We say we’re too busy. But we make things a priority when we feel they need to be a priority.
Or maybe we feel we need to save our days in case something happens because our vacation time is lumped together with our sick time and personal days. Or we work in an industry where the norm is NOT to use many vacation days at all because doing so would indicate you’re not a team player or not committed enough to the job.
Maybe our company doesn’t make it easy for employees to go on vacation because there are no backup plans in place to cover the work in our absence. Maybe our boss doesn’t even take vacation herself, setting a poor example for others.
So is vacation not important to Americans? Is being a good employee more important?
In the US, at-will employment is the norm and work contracts are not. This means the employer can terminate the employee at any time for any reason (without having to establish “just cause” for termination) and without prior notice.
To foreigners (and even Americans), this concept is absolutely insane. No work contracts? No protection? “How do banks give Americans mortgages without any type of guarantee they’ll have income coming in?” Tom asked me a few years ago, completely baffled.
American work culture is baffling. And infuriating.
Did you know the US is the only country with an advanced economy that does not legally guarantee paid vacation time? A Bureau of Labor Statistics report noted that almost a quarter of American private-sector employees, about 26 million workers, do not get a single day of paid vacation. That’s sick.
And in France?
French people have no problem using all of their vacation days — a minimum of 5 weeks per year guaranteed by law. There’s even a special word for people who vacation in August which shows us just how much vacation is intertwined with French culture.