In Defense of Vacation

Americans work too hard. A simple check over at Wikipedia shows that while France and Germany require four or more weeks of paid vacation, the United States does not have any such requirements.

Every real job I’ve had in America began with a measly ten days of vacation per year, which I believe is standard. Yearly increases are very low. How many years must an American hold a job to achieve Belgium’s minimum twenty working days? Americans change jobs frequently and can easily lose whatever days they might have accrued.

Many Americans do not even take the days off they have earned. There are myriad reasons for this. One, our individualistic (and overworked) society means that we are often in charge of our own bailiwicks at the office. The fear that a project will fall apart without us may in fact be true. Even if it is not, we want it to be true because our work is important. Rather, my work is important. A lack of team building plays into this, and many industries seem to be so competitive within the work force – this is not just well-paying Wall Street-type jobs, either – that one employee may fear trusting another while he is on vacation. If the co-worker takes care of both jobs with skill, even if he or she is working overtime to do it, their employer might decide that the vacationing employee is not really necessary. Second, even before the recession, but even more so since, employers have all the power. If a project is not finished, cancel the vacation! Even if the project is finished, employers may want to “hit the ground running” on the next one. Third, employees wanting that promotion may decide that skipping vacation this year could demonstrate their good work ethic. And so forth.

Even when they do take their vacations (and I am referring to vacations, not taking a day off for doctor appointments), Americans spend them glued to their computers or blackberries for all the reasons posted above. The ability to reach someone at any time, however, does not mean that we should.

Originally I was going to write about how many studies show that employee productivity actually goes up when they take vacations. My research showed mixed results, though. Notwithstanding that, however, I take issue with the question and the feeling I must validate my desire for more required vacation in American with economic justifications.

Let’s pretend that vacations brought an employee’s productivity up twenty percent. Now say they have the opposite effect. My opinion would remain the same. Why are we so concerned with individual productivity?

Year after year I see magazine articles, newspaper editorials, and so on exclaiming about how Americans do not work to live but live to work. Yet it does not improve; if anything, it only gets worse. The reason we should have vacations, including at least one two-week vacation a year with days off throughout the rest, is because we are human. I want to enjoy my life, and so do you. This is not a paean to idleness. It is a reminder that while American workers contribute to the economic majesty that is the modern United States economy, horribly disfigured warts and all, they do not get to enjoy as much of it as you would think because they are in their cubicles. Americans may make more, on average, than their European, vacationed counterparts, but a) that is a misnomer as it ignores the wider earnings disparity in America and b) is likely largely lost in the extra time spent at work. Money does not buy happiness. If it did, it would not matter. You’re never home to enjoy your 3D-TV anyway.

There are national benefits to vacations beyond productivity which may or may not be improved through vacations. Vacations lower stress. How much lower would American health care costs be if workers took vacations? Better blood pressures, fewer heart attacks, etc. Has anyone examined how much money Americans would save on health costs if they all took just five to ten more days of vacation per year? Call it the margarita effect.

But why do we have to justify vacations and other benefits to workers through economic benefits? We could simply say “vacations make people happier” but instead we propose it as “encouraging vacations make employees more loyal.” This only perpetuates the idea that everything must have an economic basis. Social, too. Vacations mean more time spent with families. Might more unbroken American families, which currently usually have two overworked parents, remain together if not for the stress of conflicting schedules? Long-term planning and compromise function best when there is time to sit and think. “Family” political candidates should think about the benefits children would receive from the additional parental attention.

I recently returned from a wonderful vacation. I relaxed. I checked my e-mail once or twice, sure, but never when I was doing something with the people I was visiting. I snuck in a couple glances when other people were otherwise occupied. Now I feel refreshed and recharged. I had been looking forward to it for at least a month as my work (which I love) started to just drag onwards without end. When I got off the plane to visit the Oberamtfreundin, I thought to myself:

“This is what makes work worthwhile.”

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