I was on a two-week honeymoon in New Zealand, feeling pretty smug about my extended time off, when I first realized just how notoriously ungenerous the American vacation policy is.
“Two weeks? That’s hardly enough time to do anything, let alone explore New Zealand!” said a German couple incredulously when we told them how long we’d be visiting. They had been in the country for two months.
“Ah, Americans. How did you manage to get two full weeks off work?” asked a gaggle of Australian tourists we met on a trail. We looked at each other, puzzled: Is America really that behind on the whole work-life thing?
Overwhelmingly so, as it turns out.
The United States government, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, does not require employers to give their employees paid time off. And as for employees who do earn vacation days? They rarely use them. According to a 2014 Glassdoor Employment Confidence survey, the “average U.S. employee only takes half (51 percent) of his or her eligible vacation or paid time off.”
We are a nation with one of the fewest number of vacation days in the world, legally entitled to zero. Europeans, meanwhile, average 28 paid vacation days a year. Brazilians get 30 paid vacation days plus 11 national holidays, Poland offers 26 compulsory days and Australia gets 28.
Even worse, when U.S. employees do take paid time off, 61 percent of them admit to sneaking in some work. So, what gives?
According to Glassdoor’s survey, employees on vacation work for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because no one else at their company can do the work they are responsible for.
Others fear falling behind or missing out on a promotion. Others are afraid of their bosses or not meeting their goals. Still others feel judged for taking time off.
David Sandel used to work as an engineer at a global corporation that boasted approximately 500,000 employees worldwide. He says employees were encouraged to use their vacation days, but the organization made it nearly impossible to take more than one week off at a time.
“One time I had saved up three weeks of vacation and planned on taking two work weeks of it for a climbing trip to Thailand,” explains Sandel. “Of course they said no. Two weeks is barely enough time to visit any one place in Thailand, so one week would be pointless.”
While that specific instance didn’t influence his decision to quit that job, he says it did feel representative of the entire corporate culture: high-stress work walking hand in hand with nearly no work-life balance.
Sandel is now freelance and traveling the country in a van, taking full advantage of his time off.
Fifteen years ago, Scott Woods and his wife, Ieva, quit their jobs and spent the next few years traveling the world, rock climbing and running ultramarathons. After they moved back to State College, Pennsylvania, the couple launched West Arete, a software development company, and decided to do something revolutionary: Offer each of their employees a mandatory one-month sabbatical every single year.
“You know what, it’s freaking amazing,” Woods laughs during his TEDXPSU conference speech. According to him, companies with engaged employees outperform those without by up to 202 percent, and the results he saw in his company’s work-life balance experiment reflected the positive impact of giving employees extended time off.
Which, well, we’re all on board with (obviously). And we’re not the only ones: More and more Millennials are opting to go freelance or take unpaid leave in favor of time off.
“I’m currently on a strict 10-day situation,” says Whitney James, who works for Outside GO. “But I’m lucky enough to be able to take unpaid leave. If I weren’t, I would be forced to look for a role somewhere else. It’s important for me to take a meaningful, personal break during the year.”
“A big decision for me to go freelance was that I wanted to have control over my time,” says writer and editor Rhea Cortado. “The whole two-weeks-off per year situation was really depressing me. I wanted more for myself than two weeks, even if it meant a pay cut.”
Taking full advantage of your time off may do more than put a smile on your face. According to Steve Blake, vice president of clinical operations at Managed Health Network, Inc., there are innumerable physical and psychological health benefits from taking a break from your work, including decreased depression, less stress and improved productivity.
So what’s the solution? For some, it’s a career change. For others, it’s disconnecting completely during those precious few days off. Some companies, especially those in the outdoor industry, are catching on to Americans’ changing perspective on time off, offering better vacation packages, flex time and work-from-home options.
“My boss is really great about letting me take extra unpaid days off as long as my work is up to date,” says Taryn Eyton. “Plus, my boss does the same thing, taking extended bike tours or heli ski trips, so she knows what it’s like to never have enough vacation!”
The verdict here? Use your vacation days and put up that out-of-office message. Let’s put an end to adventure shaming and take back our time off. If we don’t do it, who will?
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