Vacation-Deprived? Maybe It’s Your Fault

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If you’re like many Americans, you’re back at your desk this week after a totally relaxing long weekend of last-minute gift-buying and spastic present-wrapping and uncontrolled gingerbread-gorging. You’re as glazed as a 10 lb. ham. It’s all you can do to get through a few days of paper-pushing until–hallelujah!–the compulsory Champagne-drinking contest known as New Year’s Eve.

More than once you’ve grumbled, Heck, why don’t they just give us the whole week off? What planet-saving project do they expect us to complete in the few working days between Christmas and New Year’s?

What we employees don’t like to admit is that the responsibility may lie to some extent with us. What profit-minded, shareholder-driven CEO would force workers to take a holiday? …a CEO who doesn’t want to keep the job that pays him 369 times more than his average worker, that’s who.

“My workers don’t take holidays because they don’t want to,” is what CEO Guy says to his board. And he wouldn’t be completely wrong.

Employed Americans get about 14 days of vacation on average. Those 14 days are measly compared to the 24 the average Brit gets, and practically a joke compared to a Frenchman’s 39 days. What’s worse, a third of working Americans say they don’t even take all of those 14 days, on average leaving four on the table.

And there you have it: those are the four days between Christmas and the weekend that would have let you take this whole week off.

Those stats come from the 2006 Vacation Deprivation survey. Expedia is so alarmed by this trend that it’s created a fancy web site dedicated to persuading workers just how vacation-deprived they are. You’re either a Daydreamer, a Workaholic, or Overworked (I hate it when parallels aren’t parallel). A faux Post-it on the Workaholic page reads, “Reminder: you deserve a break.” In a “folder” marked vacation tips, the site urges, “Consider a ‘breakation!'” Each page leads conveniently to Expedia’s travel-booking site, of course. So clever, these webvertorials.

The travel and leisure industry isn’t the only group to notice American workers’ apparent allergy to vacation. The trend intrigues scholars, too. The excellent Knowledge@Wharton web site of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania examined it in an article last July:

As recently as the 1960s, Europeans worked more than people in the U.S., according to a 2005 study by Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth University and Alberto Alesina and Ed Glaeser, both of Harvard University. Since then, however, the regions’ appetites for leisure have diverged, with Americans grinding away for ever-more hours at the office and Europeans taking time to savor la dolce vita (“the sweet life”). These days, the U.S. even outworks famously industrious Japan.

The article goes on to mine the various reasons bandied about by other scholars and by the popular press, noting that the proliferation of Blackberries, our financial burdens, differing values, unions and even taxes all seem to play a role in why Americans take fewer vacations than do Europeans. It concludes by quoting a Wharton management professor named Nancy Rothbard who questions the basic premise that vacations are, in fact, relaxing:

She cites research that has found that the recharge effect lasts about three days. And for many people, those three days come with a hefty price of their own–and it’s not entirely financial. “Would more vacation be better for us?” she asks. “It depends on the tradeoffs.” If it means making less money, some people might pass, preferring to save for their children’s college educations, their retirements or even a house at the beach–even if they rarely have the time to use it.

Studies also show that some people bank weeks and weeks of vacation, she points out. Analysts tend to assume that their bosses discourage them from taking their time or that they fear a rock pile of work when they return. But it’s possible that they just don’t want to leave work.

Which brings me back to my point. We can’t complain about how much we need a vacation unless we take a vacation. I think our bosses do pressure us not to take time off, if only by forgoing holidays themselves. But if we insist, all together now, on using our alotted time–skiing in Vail, trolling Parisian bakeries or playing Sudoku by the fire with our kids–our CEOs will just have to deal. Preferably by pumping some of that seven-figure pay package back into the economy by booking their own extracurricular adventures.