There recently has been a plethora of articles suggesting that many employees are overworked and that they need more time off. Firms that have unlimited vacation schedules and various types of leave programs are praised in these articles as exemplars of good management practice.
I think it is important to put the issue of work and its rewards into perspective. It certainly is true that there are a number of jobs that are dissatisfying, exhausting and where shorter working days and more vacation time undoubtedly would benefit most employees and organizations. Years of research show, for example, that in many physical labor situations and repetitive menial jobs, productivity declines dramatically after six to eight hours of work. It also shows that individuals are more satisfied with their lives when they have substantial vacation time.
But we are in a new era. Much of today's work does not involve tiring physical labor and can be done flexibly and in multiple locations. Much of it can be rewarding and provide individuals with personal growth and meaningful, satisfying experiences. Thus, it is not surprising that many people are working hard, taking little vacation time and seem obsessed with their jobs.
Not surprisingly it is technology companies that are giving people "unlimited vacation time" and greater flexibility about how they spend their time. In many respects they have no choice. They have technologies that allow people to work 24/7 and make it difficult for them to monitor how hard and when people are working. Further, in many cases it is not necessary to monitor their work hours. What they can monitor, and do, is their production. There is no doubt that if individuals don't produce, they will no longer have a job. In these situations, it is not a case of whether the organization allows people to take adequate vacation time, it a question of whether they produce what the organization needs. It is up to the individual to manage their time so that they are productive
One further point, my research and that of many others has focused on what makes work more engaging and satisfying. It shows that there are a number of features of work that make it enjoyable and fulfilling, and something some people would rather do than take time off! People that have well designed jobs find a great amount of satisfaction from doing their job well because it leads to feelings of competence, respect, and in some cases wealth.
It is important that we not lose the mindset of making work rewarding by focusing on how much vacation time people get, the flexibility they have and how much leave time individuals have. In many cases, the better thing to focus on is whether the work is challenging, interesting and rewarding. If it is, individuals will happily work long hours and put in high levels of effort.
There is nothing about most work that makes it exhausting, dissatisfying, and non-rewarding. In fact, it can be just the opposite. What organizations need to give individuals is flexibility with respect to when and what they work on, and to be sure that the work itself is rewarding, satisfying, and in tune with what individuals value.
More vacation time cannot make work more satisfying or rewarding. Indeed for some individuals it may make life less satisfying and rewarding.