Americans Suck at Time Off

Americans, on the whole, have a terrible relationship with time off.

Every year in June and July, American news outlets focus on this topic and highlight some astounding statistics.

It’s Not (Entirely) Your Fault

Part of the problem with Americans and time off is that there is zero mandated time off. The U.S. government does not require that private sector employers give any time off at all, not for vacation and not for national holidays either.

Of course, many employers offer time off to be competitive and for the sake of their employees’ health. That said, Americans don’t get nearly as much time off as their European counterparts. The EU mandates that employers give a minimum of 20 days of time off, or 4 weeks, per year. That’s for everyone, including new hires in their first year on the job. The average full-time U.S. employee in private industry only gets 10 paid vacation days in their first year of service. Among people who actually use their time off, Americans typically take about 15 days per year, or 3 weeks.

Take a look at this chart of countries and their PTO from Wikipedia; I’ll show you a little slice of it below. It shows mandatory minimum annual leave and paid holidays (i.e., national holidays, bank holidays). The U.S. isn’t just behind Europe in this regard. It’s behind literally every other nation, including developing countries, except for four tiny island nations in the Pacific Ocean that have less than two million people combined.

Mandated Time Off By Country
From Wikipedia – a small section of a chart showing a list of all nations and their mandated time off for workers, alongside national holidays and total days off per year.

By not having any mandate, the U.S. allows a culture to persist in which employees are often scared of losing their jobs or their prestige at work if they take too much time away from work.

Time Off is Good for You

It’ll come as no surprise that time off is good for you. Time away from work helps people recover from work and build up their resilience and energy (also known as internal resources). When we have more resilience, we are better at coping with stressors.

Even weekends help refill our internal resources. When people have a bad weekend filled with bad luck or too much responsibility, they don’t return to work refreshed and thus burn out faster and aren’t as productive. The research on the affect of vacations is more mixed. Whether a vacation leaves you feeling refreshed or how refreshed you feel after a vacation has a lot to do with your state before you left, how long the vacation is, and how enjoyable it is.

Some research shows that people feel better during their time off when they can check in on work, while other people absolutely want to close their laptop before a holiday and not open it again until they return. The answer is personal. Do you need work-life boundaries or not? The research suggests it’s important to do what makes you feel comfortable and less stress, and the answer isn’t the same for everyone.

What Can You Do?

Perhaps none of this is news to you. We hear similar statistics each year. We hear about how employees are scared to take their time off or to unplug from their jobs completely. We hear that younger employees don’t like to disconnect fully. It’s the same old same old.

If you’re invested in seeing a change, take whatever time off you’re allowed. All of it. There are ways to do it responsibly. Talk with bosses and co-workers about what your level of engagement will be while you’re gone, and if the answer is “none,” be sure to help create the plan for how other people will cover any important work for you while you’re gone.

While some people prefer to take off a day here and there, I’ve always looked up to senior employees who take off two or three weeks in row as role models. If you’re a more experienced employee or a manager, set a good example by taking your time off.

Image by Wade Morgen, CC.


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