It’s summer again and for those of us here in the United States which typically means a few things: 1) Construction season is in full swing so that fieldwork hours are going strong, 2) We are waiting on things from all of our European counterparts as most are off on holiday, and 3) we are skipping our own vacations.
In 2013 US workers failed to use more than 400 million days of earned leave. 169 million of those were permanently lost. That’s $52.4B in forfeited benefits! As a worker the idea of paying my employer to work for them makes me feel like an idiot. However, as a business owner I think that this type of behavior is one of the reasons that the US market has such an impact on the world’s economic output. A recent survey for 2014 showed that US workers only took 51% of their paid leave and 61% performed some work while on vacation. I fit firmly into that group.
When negotiating my most last contract I was adamant that I needed a set number of paid vacation days. In four years, I have never taken them all. When I do go, I still check my phone and email multiple times per day and usually participate in 1-3 conference calls over the week as well. Why do we do this? I hesitate to answer for an entire c country’s working population so I’ll stick to myself and those from which I have first-hand knowledge.
- I know what I will come back to. If I take a week off I’ll come in the following Monday to several hundred unread emails. Add to that a couple of hours putting out fires and the inevitable “catching-up” phone calls and the next thing I know it’s Wednesday and I have not accomplished anything other than recovering from the week off.
- We don’t have extra staff. We, like most US companies, try to run as lean as possible. If there was someone on staff that could handle my work load one of us would probably be reassigned or released. I work very hard to get my clients and the idea of losing one due to bad service drives me to check email, IM, and answer certain calls – regardless of my location.
- The clock is ticking. There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish and I only have so long to get them done! Market conditions change, I’ll eventually be too old for any of this, and someone else might beat me to it. I already have more ideas than I have time and resources to develop. Time is a resource that I can add back in when I skip vacations.
- Corporate Culture. If those on your team don’t take time off you tend to feel a need to forgo your own paid leave to be a productive team member. In the US companies are not required to provide paid leave (compared with 28 days in the UK, 20 in Germany & Australia and 10 in Canada & Japan). Without a government mandate we really are dependent upon a company’s corporate culture.
Most of those reasons make skipping vacations look okay. However, I think we are missing out by denying ourselves hard-earned perks. While there are plenty of studies that discuss mental health issues and life satisfaction results associated with time away from work, this is an industry publication so I’m going to focus on the business related issues that promote taking your paid leave.
- Burnout is real. Some occupations are more susceptible than others (I’m looking at you CAD/3D modelers!) but the reality is that efficiency drops when people are overworked. More hours do not guarantee a greater output. Most of us are in positions where we need to think not just mindlessly react. One study be the Cornell University Ergonomics Lab showed that workers that were prompted to take short breaks were 13% more accurate on average.
- You can be a frog in hot water. You’ve probably heard the old adage about how a frog dropped in boiling water will jump out while one dropped in a pot of cool water will stay in it until it boils. Unless you take a break from the multitasking environment that is work today you may not realize that most of your thought are reduced to 140 characters. Some concepts require longer strands of memory and processing. Vacations provide a reminder that you are capable of such thinking when left alone to do it.
- Great things have come from vacations! Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin when he found that mold growing in one of his petri dishes inhibited the growth of the bacterial sample. How did his petri dishes get so bad that they became moldy? He left them piled up on his workstation before he left town on vacation. Working harder would have resulted in cleaner dishes not penicillin. That took a vacation to be discovered. Don’t forget those guys that owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio either, their vacation pastime worked out pretty well while visiting the beach town of Kitty Hawk, NC on December 17, 1903.