Overworked and Underplayed: The Incredible Shrinking Vacation

Time off to recharge and renew is the engine of productivity and innovation. Enlightened companies understand this.
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As you trudge back to work after a brief glimpse of freedom beyond the office, your thoughts may turn to what it would feel like to have a few more days off from the grind. The end of May used to mark the unofficial start of vacation season, a time when people took road trips, went camping, roamed amusement parks, traveled and explored their world. Today, vacations are little more than a memory for many of us, a theoretical concept that exists only on paper.

Some 25 percent of Americans and 31 percent of low-wage earners get no vacation at all anymore, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. This is because, unlike in 138 other countries around the world, you're not entitled to a vacation longer than the current news cycle. You happen to live in a country that, along with the esteemed likes of Myanmar, the Guyanas and North Korea, has no minimum paid leave law to make vacations statutorily legit. Two years ago, that all could have changed.

I stood outside U.S. congressional offices in May of 2009, as Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida introduced the first minimum paid leave law, the Paid Vacation Act of 2009. Grayson mentioned in his remarks that having vacations guaranteed by law was a matter of justice, with some Americans able to get vacation time from employers and an increasing number of them able to get nothing at all. It was also a family values issue, vacations being the best time all year for quality family time. I could hardly believe it was happening. I had started a campaign to press for a minimum paid leave law back in 2000, and, with the help of John de Graaf and Take Back Your Time, our proposed amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act to give Americans the same right folks in 138 other countries have was on its way.

It had been a long, strange trip to legalized vacations in the U.S. As the concept of vacations dawned after the turn of the century, begun by companies as a respite to restore and recharge workers, ex-president William Howard Taft suggested in 1910 that the American worker needed two to three months of vacation a year "in order to continue his work next year with the energy and effectiveness which it ought to have." Taft's pitch was ultimately picked up by the Swedes and Germans, who average about seven weeks of holiday time a year.

Back in the 1930s, the Committee on Vacations with Pay was tasked by the Labor Department to look into the problem of the lack of a vacation law in the U.S. when 30 other nations had one. How could that be? The group recommended to Labor Secretary Frances Perkins that a law be enacted, but nothing happened. This was the fork in the road where the Europeans went one way on holiday time and we went quite another. Labor unions in Europe continued to push for time off, and as a result Europeans gained additional vacation time in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Today, most of Europe has four and five weeks off by law (plus a week to two weeks more by agreement with their employers), as do Australians and Brazilians, among many others. Fast forward to the era of downsizing and tech tools demanding constant contact, and vacations today are going the way of the dodo.

It makes as little sense for business as it does for their employees. Performance increases after a vacation, with reaction times going up 40 percent. Vacations cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress and something very difficult to shake. Burned-out employees are a major liability to effective performance. They may be at the office physically, but output is next to nothing when cognitive, physical and emotional resources have been depleted. Vacations regather crashed resources and restore productive capacity. But it takes two weeks for the recuperative process to occur. Only 14 percent of Americans take more than one week of vacation at a time these days, according to a Harris poll.

When I was a kid, it was norm for my family to take off every summer for a two-week road trip of overheated radiators and giant balls of twine. My dad never missed a vacation. That's not true anymore. Expedia's just-released annual survey shows that only 38 percent of Americans use all their vacation days. Job insecurity is a big part of it, the belief that if you take that holiday, your layoff number might come up. It's called defensive overworking, and it's futile. I've talked to people who have worked at companies for 25 years and hardly ever used their vacation time, and they got pink-slipped, too. There would be a lot less unused vacation days if it were legally protected.

The arguments on the other side mostly boil down to a belief that the world will come to an end for U.S. productivity if we somehow enjoyed legal title to a vacation. It's just the opposite. Performance increases with recharging and refueling, all the studies show. "We'll wind up like unproductive Europe" is another favorite line. Another myth, too. Several European countries with four- and five-week vacation laws are more productive than we are per hour -- Belgium, Norway, even France.

How many hundreds of U.S. companies are operating in Europe right now with all their employees taking four- to six-week vacations by law? I don't see a mass exodus of unprofitable U.S. firms in Europe due to their employees' vacations. Walter Perkins, a finance VP for a top American engineering firm who ran an office in Rotterdam, told me that four-week-plus holidays affected output not one iota at his office.

People who work for a living get all this -- and people from both parties, too. I've been on a number of conservative talk radio shows in which the host expects callers to ream me, but the majority supported having vacations protected by law. The hosts are always stunned.

American management is way behind the science on where productivity and innovation come from, using obsolete, factory metrics and motivational tools (as Daniel Pink details wonderfully in "Drive"), something I see in my work as a stress management trainer for these organizations. It's not the amount of hours on the job, but the quality of those hours that results in productive endeavor in the knowledge economy, where it's not about how much of a pounding you can take but how fresh your brain is. Time off to recharge and renew is the engine of productivity and innovation. Enlightened companies understand this, firms such as SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., which offers three weeks off to all employees during the first year on the job and has seen its sales increase by double digits for years to $2 billion a year.

One of the reasons you don't have a vacation or one that feels legit enough to take without gobs of guilt is that the culture programs us to believe that only output has value. Step away from performance, and there is no value. The problem is that the realm of nonproductivity is where your life lives -- family, friends, hobbies, passions, travel, exploring. I detail in the new book "Don't Miss Your Life" how we have it all wrong about the non-task side of life. The science shows that real value, in the form of authentic self-worth, not based on the external approval of output and status, as well as life satisfaction, comes in engaging recreational activities off the clock, which allow you to gratify core psychological needs.

A study led by Princeton's Alan Krueger and Nobel-prize-winning psychology professor and researcher Daniel Kahneman found that of all the things on the planet, humans are at their happiest when they're involved in engaging leisure experiences. Leaf Van Boven, of the University of Colorado, has found that vacations make us happier than material things, because they can't be compared to anyone else's experiences. They create lasting memories that fire off multiple parts of the brain and, as a result, stick with us. It's our memories that tell us we like our lives.

Engaged recreation is one of the world's best stress buffers, no doubt why an annual vacation cuts the risk of heart attack in men by 30 percent and by 50 percent in women who take more than one vacation a year. Think about the impact of those reduced heart events on health care costs. Research by Tim Kasser has documented that, as work time increases and leisure time decreases, negative emotions and health problems increase and life satisfaction plummets.

In our guts we know all this -- and that there's something that doesn't add up about being the "no vacation nation," as the CEPR study put it. How is it that the rest of the world can pull off vacations for its citizens and the can-do nation can't? They have more courageous lawmakers, for one.

The Paid Vacation Act of 2009 didn't find the support it needed and never made it onto the floor of Congress. Lawmakers say now is not the right time. It will kill jobs, when it actually enhances them. Staff turnover at Jancoa, a Cincinnati firm, dropped from 360 percent to 60 percent and productivity soared with the addition of a week of vacation. Ron Keleman of the H Group in Salem, Ore. has doubled his profits since he increased vacation time at his office. Not to mention, increased time off would be a boon for tourism, prime the economic pump and create jobs. A former World Bank official told me about a meeting with state tourism officials in Tennessee, who were spending the bulk of their ad dollars trying to lure European tourists, since Americans had no time to visit.

The question that needs to be asked is when the right time to live is. We're already 80 years behind schedule on minimum paid leave. Do you have another 80 years to wait for what the citizens of almost every other nation on the planet have? If not, let's find new Congressional sponsors who can pick up the ball that took eight decades to bounce into the halls of Congress and move the Paid Vacation Act forward. And get us out of the company of such quality of life stalwarts as Myanmar and North Korea.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, spirit and missing skills of living the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress management speaker, trainer, coach and author at "Work to Live."

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