Why Does the U.S. Hate Vacation Time?

by Piyali Syam | June 05, 2013

Thinking about going to Europe for your next vacation? You may want to consider moving there instead. Permanently. Might we suggest Austria?

The Center for Economic and Policy Research recently published a new report titled “No-Vacation Nation Revisited,” a follow-up to its first report on the subject of vacation time in the U.S. as compared to other developed nations published in 2007. The findings? The U.S. is the single most anti-vacation nation out of all the richest and developed countries in the world (rounding out the bottom three were Japan and Canada, which both still did better than the U.S. but only legally required employers to provide 10 days of paid vacation time), being the only one to not legally mandate paid vacation time for all its employees. What’s more is that apparently absolutely nothing has changed in the six years since the first report came out. The United States of America is just as stingy as ever when it comes to doling out paid leave.

Better in Europe

The U.S.’s woeful no-pay-for-vacay policy stands in stark contrast to the more progressive (and presumably more relaxed) countries in Europe, where the European Union mandates its member nations to provide workers with a minimum of 20 paid days off in a year. While it’s true that vacation time is not mandated by law, a little over three quarters of U.S. workers, 77%, are offered paid time off through their companies. But if you’re like 23% of workers in the U.S., you get no paid time off at all. The average employee in the U.S. receives 10 paid days of vacation time per year and six paid holidays. Still, this combined number lags far behind European nations such as the UK, which mandates 28 paid days off, Spain, with 30 paid days and 12 holidays, Scandinavian nations Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, which require 25 paid vacation days, France, with 30 days off and one holiday, Germany, with 20-24 vacation days and up to 13 holidays and Greece, with four weeks and six holidays. The most generous country was Austria, which rewards its employees with 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays.

And the cherry on top? Workers in Austria, Greece, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark get paid to go on vacation. Seriously. In addition to yearly salaries, companies in Austria even provide “13th month pay” to help defray expenses of a month’s worth of vacation, while Belgium and Denmark also provide vacation bonuses.

Vacation Inequality

Making matters worse in the U.S. is the widening of the gap that occurs between lower-wage and higher-paid workers not just in pay but in paid time off. Less than half of part-time employees, 40%, receive paid vacation and 35% receive paid holidays. About half of the lowest-earning bottom quarter of workers receive paid vacation, while 90% of the top quarter of higher-earners do, meaning those who are most in need of paid time off don’t receive it.

Use it or Lose it

It’s not just employers who limit vacation time their workers can use. Due to anxieties over a shaky economy and thin job market, heavy workload before and after a vacation and fears of employer disapproval, many employees themselves choose to limit their own time and don’t take full advantage of the days they have accrued, leaving some of their days unused. Those who do go on vacation find themselves hard-pressed to relax, often spending their vacation with a piña colada in one hand and their work Blackberry in the other. This loss is the employer’s gain, with employees leaving $34.3 million worth of vacation time unused each year. 

Paradox of Productivity

So why is the U.S. (with the exception of Democratic Florida Representative Alan Grayson, who has been working on getting a bill passed that would mandate that workers at employers with over 100 employees receive one week of yearly paid time off) so reluctant to increase vacation time? The paradox of productivity is that while “work more produce more” may seem like a good idea in theory, the reality is that workers get burned out. The more an employee works consistently without breaks, after a certain point his or her productivity will taper off. Allowing more days off—minus the stress of losing a paycheck—is actually more likely to boost productivity rather than hinder it.

The Importance of Vacations

Vacations are about more than being lazy. Adequate time off from work is essential to mental, emotional and physical well-being. The rejuvenating effects of leisure time can counteract the negative impact of prolonged anxiety and stress on the body and even cut the risk of heart attack by as much as 30% for men and 50% for women. Not to mention the value vacation time has in cultivating intangible experiences that are necessary to a well-rounded life, including spending quality time with family, traveling, nurturing hobbies, interests and identities outside of work and generally stopping to smell the roses.

Should the United States as a country slow down the rat race, loosen corporate reins on workers and relax its focus on the bottom line, or is the dogged focus on work helping us stay on top? What do you think, Vault readers?

Filed Under: Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues


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