Why American Workers Can’t Take Vacations

Why American Workers Can’t Take Vacations

Taking paid vacations has never been more important. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, health concerns and burnout reached unprecedented levels.

Many workers are re-evaluating their relationship between work and personal life and trying to take a break to recover. Despite this, many still find it difficult to request days off.

The amount of paid vacation workers receive varies around the world, but those based in the United States appear to be among the most reluctant to take time off.

American workers are generally entitled to less paid vacation than those in European nations (there is no national minimum number of days set by US law). Still, according to a 2017 survey, the average US worker said he had taken about half (54%) of the vacation he was entitled to in the previous 12 months.

And things seem to have gotten worse. In 2018, a report showed that American workers dropped 768 million days off with pay — a 9% increase over 2017.

It is clear, however, that American workers want more days off.

A 2019 survey showed that one in three Americans would accept a pay cut to have unlimited days off—a policy in which the employee negotiates vacations with their direct boss, as necessary and feasible.

Employers have responded to that interest: On the jobs website Indeed, unlimited vacation job postings increased by 178% from May 2015 to May 2019. But the survey shows that even in cases where workers can take how much time if they wish, they tend to take fewer days off than employees with a set number of days.

If all signs point in the direction that paid time off is needed and encouraged, why are so many workers in the US still failing to take all of their vacation time? The answer lies in the complex mix of professional pressures and cultural values ​​that, combined, keep American workers stuck at their desks—even if they prefer not to be there.

The role of corporate culture

Around the world, a determinant of whether employees feel confident taking all of their vacations is corporate culture. Bosses who value healthy behaviors will encourage their employees to go on vacation, while bosses who value physical presence will deter them.

In very competitive work environments, employees who go on vacation fear being treated poorly or missing out on future opportunities. A 2018 study showed that one of the main reasons American employees didn’t take time off was fear of being seen as replaceable.

Christie Engler, director of human resources at Consolidated Employer Services, an HR solutions company based in Powell, Ohio, says: “They can be dismissed or viewed negatively by their boss and others in the office. people feel bad about taking time off.”

Engler argues that this culture is clearly different in the public sector, where teachers, for example, have fixed vacations and strong unions.

In the private sector, however, the threat is real. The US tourism association identified that 28% of people did not take a vacation in 2014 purely to demonstrate dedication to their job and not be seen as a “slacker” — a slacker.

“Culturally, in the US, we consider taking time off to be the same as quitting or not having a good work ethic,” says Joey Price, CEO of a Baltimore-based HR consultancy.

“There is a stigma around the idea of ​​not working.”

This fear that bosses will see that some employee is not properly committed to the job is so prevalent that it can even lead employees to cheat their employers instead of taking vacations directly.

In 2019, a survey of American workers showed that more than one in three who responded admitted to pretending to be sick to get a day off, and 27% chose to “make up some story” rather than ask for time off in advance.

‘You have to grate’

Even if a company doesn’t stop employees from going on vacation, in many work environments “working as much as possible is embraced as a badge of honor,” says Engler.

A 2019 study showed that both US conservatives and liberals alike believe in the importance of working hard to succeed.

Pressure to perform well is not just a moral expectation; predominantly, workers in the US believe that providing “excellent performance” is the best way to get a pay raise.

This can easily lead to overwork — something Michael Komie, a psychoanalyst and professor of clinical psychology in the city of Chicago, describes as “a public health problem” in the United States.

In some work environments, meeting your anticipated working hours is just the beginning. Research shows that a constant presence in the workplace and spending “passive face-to-face time” with colleagues, both during and outside of regular working hours, can make employees more likely to be seen as trustworthy and committed.

Price says this creates a dynamic where “you have to work, you have to work late, you have to be in the building so the boss can see you’re working.”

In this context, the number of days off an employee has in their contract may not matter. In fact, studies have shown that American workers with contracts that include unlimited vacations sometimes take fewer days than those with traditional plans if the company doesn’t promote a culture that encourages or requires employees to take vacations.

Some critics believe that unlimited paid time off actually discourages workers from going on vacation, because the lack of formal rules about how many days someone can take time off can leave a vacuum that is easily filled by the pressure to keep working.

lean companies

Workers may also face entrenched professional practices that do not easily allow them to take time off.

Companies can be structured with lean teams, which means that colleagues cannot cover an employee’s absence due to their own workload or do not have enough knowledge to take on their tasks. In this case, taking time off means having a mountain of work to do when you return or overloading colleagues with additional tasks.

This kind of lean model is a negative legacy of the traditional American work ideal, says Price.

“We are still trying to apply in the age of the knowledge worker the management principles that were effective in the age of industry and assembly lines. The work system is not designed for people to take vacation days, and the end result is what people see when someone takes time off, their department is falling behind.”

This leads some people to feel that taking time off will reflect so badly on themselves and their team that it just isn’t worth it. “The stress or guilt or shame people feel about taking a vacation is very real. So they just suck it up and keep working,” says Price.

Feeling tied to your desk can even lead some employees to feel that they are indispensable.

“The employee has the fantasy that he’s so important to what he’s doing that he’s going to let the employer down if he’s not there,” explains Komie.

Few workers are so particularly talented or so uniquely knowledgeable that only they can do their jobs, but that fantasy can get mixed up with reality when a bad plan means the workflow is interrupted when a specific employee is absent because no one else can perform its tasks.

One consequence of this is that, if they manage to go on vacation, most Americans end up taking work with them. A 2017 study showed that 66% of US workers reported having worked while on vacation, with 29% responding to requests from colleagues, and 25% to requests from their bosses.

Not surprisingly, then, rather than helping to reduce stress, “in the US being away from work can produce anxiety,” says Komie.

‘Healthier conversations’

Currently, the movement known as the “Big Dismissal” (professionals leaving jobs after the pandemic in search of a better quality of life) is forcing US companies to rethink how they can retain workers — but workers still don’t seem to prioritize paid vacation.

A 2021 survey on worker satisfaction showed that, despite being unhappy with the amount of paid vacation they received, they were even more unhappy with job stress, salary, retirement and health care benefits, and promotion opportunities. .

Price believes companies are responding to the demands of some workers ———flexible working, for example—because changes in the work environment imposed during the pandemic crisis have made them seem like a realistic possibility. Meanwhile, talk of paid time off has not progressed much, although demand is starting to pick up.

Price recently introduced his company’s unlimited paid vacation model, along with a “work-to-support absence system” to retain and attract highly skilled workers.

On a practical level, this means ensuring that at least two people on the team are knowledgeable about all projects, planning ahead to handle absences, and making your clients aware that vacation times are factored into project deadlines.

More than anything, though, he says employees need to feel supported to take a vacation rather than worry about being penalized for it.

“The first step is to have healthier conversations about days off, so that people don’t feel the stigma,” he says. It starts with employers sending out a clear message: “It’s okay to take a day off. We’re not going to judge you negatively for that.”

There is also hope that legislation around paid vacations and greater awareness of the mental health risks of overworking can be catalysts for change.

“There are many studies that show that we need to take time off, we need to be in good mental health, and work systems that are more empathetic lead to a more productive workplace culture,” Price adds.

Until that message gets across the country, employees in the US who want to spend less time at work may have to look for places to work where taking time off isn’t seen as a special request.

It’s a lesson that workers around the world should also be aware of, even though in many places there is less pressure to give up time off. After all, everyone needs a break.


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