When is a Vacation Not a Vacation?

Iconic photo of JFK on vacation, Public Domain

The United States continues to be the only advanced economy in the world that does not require employers to provide any paid vacation[1]. Although an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act was submitted to congress in May, 2013 to try and change that [2], it was referred to a subcommittee for further study.

Since paid vacation is not mandatory in the U.S., many workers (especially low wage workers) get little or none. In a competitive job environment, even those who are entitled to paid vacation, based on the specific terms of their employment, often don’t use it. One survey conducted in 2010 indicated that the average American accrues 18 vacation days and uses only 16, while the average French worker has (and takes) more than twice as many vacation days each year[3]. So even when paid vacation time is provided, many American workers only use part of it.

It’s Not a Vacation When You Keep working

In addition to an apparent reluctance to take vacation, research shows that most American workers also complete work or stay connected to the office during regular time off and while on vacation. Here are just a few data points revealed by recent research:

  • In an online survey of 1,000 respondents conducted by Instant.ly, 59% work while on vacation.
  • he Work-Related Communication Technology Survey[4] found that more than half of employed adults check work messages at least once a day over the weekend, before or after work during the week and even when they are home sick.
  • In the same survey, more than one-third of respondents said communication technology increases their workload (36%) and makes it more difficult to stop thinking about work (34%) and take a break from work (35%).
  • PGI’s Workation Nation survey found that 82% of respondents connect to the office while on vacation (40% check once a day and 42% check more than once each day).

By keeping employees on the job and providing little or no paid vacation, employers likely believe they are ensuring higher output and better results. By staying on the job and not taking their full vacation allotment, employees likely believe they are getting more done, securing their jobs and improving their chances for promotion. They’re both mistaken.

Vacations Increase Productivity and Reduce Burnout

Research has demonstrated that productivity increases when employees (at all levels) take vacation. Reaction times improve as do retention and employee satisfaction. Researcher Mark Rosekind of Alertness Solutions found that the respite effect of a vacation can increase performance by 80% and reaction times of returning vacationers by 40%. Iowa State professor, Wallace Huffman, says a holiday can boost productivity by 60%.[5]

Rather than increasing an employee’s chance for promotion, refusing to take vacation can lead to presenteeism, chronic stress and burnout—none of which scream “promote me.” People who don’t take regular vacations also face increased risk of heart attack and other stress related conditions later in life. One study, entitled Are Vacations Good for Your Health?[6], concluded:

“More frequent annual vacations during the trial period was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of death during the 9-year post-trial period.”

As prevalent as this anti-vacation mindset seems to be in the U.S., some employers get it—providing a reasonable amount of paid time off and actively encouraging workers to take their full vacation allotment each year. In fact, some have gone even further, offering unlimited paid vacation time as long as defined results are achieved, or giving employees a bonus when they take their allotted vacation time. So, while America is still known as the “no vacation nation,” things are beginning to change.

For Maximum Impact, Unplug

Of course, to fulfill its purpose as a recharger and de-stressor, a vacation must be a real vacation and not just work on the beach. To make sure you take a real break on your next vacation, so you can come back refreshed and raring to go, avoid the following:

  • Vacationing with someone who always talks shop.
  • Using your vacation time in one or two day chunks scattered throughout the year so you never really wind down.
  • Checking work email and voicemail regularly.
  • Taking your work smartphone, tablet and/or laptop with you.
  • Putting an auto-responder on your email that says you’ll be checking periodically instead of one that says you are unavailable and provides an alternate contact.
  • Bringing a pile of work related reading.
  • Using your vacation time to prepare for presentations, meetings etc. when you get back (because it’s soooo wonderfully quiet and uninterrupted).
  • Going on vacation alone so you can “get some work done.”

Requiring employees to work longer hours and take fewer breaks will not result in greater productivity. On the contrary, it will lead to increased stress, cumulative physical and mental health impacts and a dissatisfied, exhausted workforce. On the other hand, encouraging employees to take vacations (and to unplug when they do!), will help keep them healthy, energized and motivated to excel.  


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[4] Survey conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of APA between July 31 and Aug. 2, 2013 among 1,084 adults age 18 and older who reside in the U.S. and are employed either full time or part time.

[6] Gump, B.B., PHD, MPH, and Matthews, K. A., PHD. Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The 9-Year Mortality Experience after the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. http://courses.umass.edu/econ340/vacations_health.pdf

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