Americans work many days, weeks, and months without a significant amount of time away from work. And of those workers who do take vacations each year, many of them are tethered to their jobs by technology. In reality, very few workers in the United States take an extended break from the job. In contrast, vacations are extremely common and popular in other industrialized countries.
According to the World Tourism Organization, the United States lags behind other countries in the amount of paid time off taken by employees each year. Workers in the United States take an average of 13 paid days off each year, compared with 42 paid days off in Italy, 37 paid days in France, 35 paid days in Germany, and 34 paid days in Brazil.
Employees in other countries are not only offered more vacation than in the United States, but they are strongly encouraged to take it. In fact, more than 140 countries mandate employers to give paid leave to workers. Societies like Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands require employers to offer their workers up to twenty paid days off per year.
Even when vacation is available, American workers often do not take all of the time allowed, which results in workers losing their hard earned accrued time of paid leave. A study done by the Families and Work Institute found that less than half of American employees take the full amount of vacation given to them. It is estimated that approximately 436 million vacation days will be forfeited in 2009, according to Expedia.com.
The high amount of lost vacation days is possibly related to the current economic environment. American workers may be more reluctant to take extended time off from work during this tough economic time due to fear of losing one’s job or being viewed as expendable. Additionally, employees may feel they are not able to take time off work due to pressures from employers to get the same amount of work done in fewer hours and/or with less people.
The unrealistic expectations and stresses placed on American workers means this is the time, more than ever, for employees to take and enjoy time off work. Taking time off work, however short, is necessary in maintaining the stress levels of work and home life. Workers who are under extreme stress experience headaches, irritability, eyestrain, digestive disorders, and panic attacks, which all directly lead to less productivity.
Employees who work 10-12 hours per day are significantly less productive and efficient than employees who work 6-6.5 hours a day, according to a long term study done by the Organizational Psychology Program at Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. The most effective executives (a high stress and high demand position) take mini breaks throughout the day to give their brains a rest. This is not to say those who work less or take multiple breaks throughout the day are lazier than their counterparts, but that the human brain and mind become tired and less efficient while focusing for an extended period of time. To be more efficient, workers should take time to stare out the window, take a walk, or even make a phone call to a friend.
Taking time away from work does not just improve productivity; it also improves a person’s health. People who take vacations are more positive and healthier, as many studies show.
The University of Pittsburg Mind-Body Center asked 1,399 participants already in other studies how often they did something they enjoyed in the previous month, and those who performed more leisure activities had more positive emotions, lower blood pressure, lower stress hormones, and smaller waists.
Another study followed 1,200 men at risk for heart disease for nine years and recorded the fluctuations in the participants’ health. The Framingham Heart Study found that those men who took more vacations were healthier and lived longer than those who neglected time off work.
In addition to the physical improvements of health, there are multiple mental improvements that occur during vacation or any period of time off of work. As a general rule, most people feel happier and more content during vacation. An article in the Journal of Occupational Health finds that vacationers from multiple countries, including the United States, report a better mood, more energy, and an overall great feeling of happiness and satisfaction. These mental health benefits are not long lasting, as many participants report the feelings fade within a few days from returning from vacation; however, the authors in the Journal say those uplifting feelings do have a long term benefit in health.
Time away from work is important to Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL), which is why he introduced the Paid Vacation Act of 2009. If passed, this bill will require employers with at least 100 employees to give one week of paid time off time to their workers. After three years of the passage, the bill will require the same employers to offer two weeks of paid time off, and employers with at least 50 employees will be mandated to give one week of paid vacation. Employees must be working at the company for at least one year to be eligible. Part time employees are also eligible if they work at least 25 hours a week and 1,250 hours a year. Please visit www.right2vacation.org for more information.
Whether or not the Paid Vacation Act of 2009 becomes a reality, taking time away from work is a necessary part in living a healthy lifestyle. Extended vacations, one day mini vacations, or even taking an enjoyable class one night a week all have huge health benefits. The key to success in life is maintaining a work/life balance and taking the time to do enjoyable activities.