In 2016, Save Your Vocation With a Vacation

My wife and I love vacations -- even when we don't leave the house. In fact, we've set aside the last week of 2015 and the first week of 2016 just to be together, with no concrete plans to go anywhere at all.

But as much as we love vacations, we also love work. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that we'll both be doing some work during both of these vacations -- and research says we're not alone.

In 2012, online travel company Expedia and market research firm Harris Interactive partnered on a global survey of 500 working folks -- 69% employed full time, 19% employed part time, and 11% self-employed -- to learn more about vacationing trends. In reviewing the data, I came away with three important insights:

  • Workers around the world don't earn much vacation time.

  • Even with little vacation time, too many workers leave vacation time unused.
  • We're rarely completely on vacation; work has a way of sneaking in.
  • U.S. workers earn half the vacation that Italians earn
    Among U.S. workers surveyed, the average number of vacation days earned annually was 12.8. Considering that the United States is the only advanced economy without a paid vacation policy, that doesn't sound too bad. However, when you start comparing to other countries, it's doesn't look too good either.

    The only country in the Expedia/Harris study with fewer vacation days earned was Japan, with 12.5. France took top honors with 31.7 paid vacation days, Italy has 25.5, and the average across the 21 countries in the study was 22 paid vacation days.

    Average vacation days earned by country. Illustration by Eryc Eyl. Source: 2012 Expedia/Harris Interactive Vacation Deprivation Study

    When considering this data, I think it's important to realize that a "vacation day" is not the same unit as a "work day." In the U.S., vacation days tend to be based on the assumption of an eight-hour work day or a 40-hour work week. However, 14% of U.S. respondents to the study indicated they work 50 or more hours per week. For those people, those 12.8 days of vacation are not equivalent to 12.8 days of work. On top of that, they don't even use the time they get.

    U.S. workers leave 9.4% of vacation time unused
    Even with the small number of vacation days earned, many workers around the world aren't using it. In the U.S., workers left 1.2 of their 12.8 vacation days unused. This was better than Japanese workers -- who left 5.1 of their 12.5 days unused -- but far worse than, for example, the Danes, who earned 27.2 vacation days, and let none of them go to waste.

    Percentage of vacation days unused by country. Illustration by Eryc Eyl. Source: 2012 Expedia/Harris Interactive Vacation Deprivation Study.

    The reasons given for not taking vacation time varied -- from not being able to afford it and not being able to coordinate family schedules to fear of missing out on important work decisions and fear of being perceived as less committed to work -- but the fact is that, with so much busyness happening at work, vacation can seem impossible. Perhaps that's why so many workers stay connected, even when they're supposed to be on vacation.

    Nearly half of U.S. workers check e-mail and voicemail while on vacation
    While the global workers surveyed only left an average of less than 2% of their vacation time unused, a large number of them indicated that they check work e-mail or voicemail "regularly" or "constantly" while they were on vacation.

    For U.S. workers, working while on vacation was quite common, with 45% saying they checked their e-mail and voicemail during vacation time. This was better than the "most connected" country in the study, Brazil, in which 70% of respondents indicated the same. On the other hand, only 23% of Germans admitted to the same "always-on" behavior.

    Percentage of workers checking in while on vacation by country. Illustration by Eryc Eyl. Source: 2012 Expedia/Harris Interactive Vacation Deprivation Study.

    When workers check in during vacation, they negatively impact the restorative and recuperative power that a real vacation can have. It's not surprising, then, that 15% of U.S. workers said they can never leave work behind and fully relax.

    We need vacation
    Looking at this data, it isn't hard to draw the conclusion that workers around the world -- and especially in the U.S. -- aren't getting the vacations they need. It's easy to dismiss this as a minor issue that doesn't deserve our attention, but the fact is that there are real costs to a lack of true vacation. Here are just a few of the consequences of inadequate vacation time:

    • We cheat our families. While work is important part of who we are, our spouses, significant others, children, parents, and friends need time with us that is unpolluted by our work. When they don't get it, they're not getting us. In trying to be providers and productive citizens, we actually end up robbing those closest to us of what they really need -- our time and attention.
    • We cheat our employers. Workers who get proper rest and time away from work return as more creative, more productive, and happier employees that can contribute more the organization's mission and goals. In trying to give our all to our jobs, we actually end up giving less.
    • We cheat ourselves. Perhaps, most important, adequate vacation is a vital ingredient in any work-life balance strategy. When we don't get vacation, we become less satisfied with our work and can even burn out, turning a good employment situation into one that we can't sustain. Our relentless pursuit of professional achievement turns into a professional dead end.
    • In 2016, save your vocation with a vacation
      We are about to start a new calendar year. What's your plan for using your vacation time this year? Take a look at your recent pay stub or check in with HR to find out how many vacation days you have coming to you, and figure out how to use them. You don't have to take expensive trips or even travel at all, but you owe it to your family, to your employer, and to yourself to use those days for their intended purpose.

      While you're at it, make a plan for how you'll truly disconnect while you're taking those vacations. As I said, I know this is going to be a hard one for me, but I'm serious about it. If there are things at work that can't get done without you, start figuring out how you can arrange for and train someone to back you up. If you simply can't stop yourself from checking work e-mail, consider removing it from your smartphone and leaving the laptop at home. Make a commitment to turn vacation time into true rest and relaxation. It could save your job.