Time-in vs. Time-off: The Vacation Quandary

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, and one of his comments really stuck with me. During our conversation he told me that the amount of vacation employers in this country give is a sin, and hes right. Given the current state of unemployment, its easy to forget about the work-obsessed nature that has defined this country for decades. Right now Americans are working harder than ever just to make ends meet, and many arent taking the time they need to reset and rejuvenate.

The Employer Side

In the U.S., the typical employer provides an average of 13 days of vacation per year. A 2007 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that 1 in 4 American workers do not receive paid vacation (no doubt the sin Mr. Branson was referring to). The CEPR also found that of the 21 richest countries, the U.S. was the only one that does not legally require employers to provide time off. It seems that we view vacation as more of a luxury than a necessity.

When it comes to spending time with the family, our friends in Europe are much better off. According to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), the average number of annual leave days in the EU15 ranges between 24 and 30 days with Germany topping out at 30 days.

The Employee Side

On the flip side, American workers do share some of the blame when it comes to time-off. According to the 2009 Vacation Deprivation Survey by Expedia, more than one third (34%) of those surveyed said they didnt use all of their vacation days. Even worse, a recent CareerBuilder survey found 24% of employees reported that their family went on vacation without them while they remained behind to work. For those who did use their time off, the same CareerBuilder survey found that 30% of them planned to contact their office during their vacation.

Given the current economic circumstances, it appears as if American workers are afraid to take time away. A recent article by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that employees are tending to hoard vacation when they are uneasy about their jobs so as to build up paid leave time in the event of a layoff. When vacation time becomes a commodity planning a trip can be a tough choice for many families to make.

However you cut it, we are a work-focused society where working more has become a badge of honor, particularly in professional positions. But we really need to think about the importance of taking time for ourselves and our family. No employer wants a burned out employee who is unhappy, unfocussed, and unproductive. We all need time-off, so consider the following:

-Get Over Yourself The world will likely still function just fine without you for a few days. If you dont have clear contingency plans for dealing with unforeseen absences, shame on you.

-Plan Ahead There will always be last minute fires to put out. If you dont put your foot down and let your coworkers and boss know when you will be away, youll never do it. If everyone knows when you are going to be out they should have no trouble preparing.

-Be Present A vacation doesnt count if you have your laptop out and are constantly checking the phone. Let yourself escape when youre on vacation. Balancing work and life can seem like an art, but it is very possible to achieve a happy medium. Be there for you spouse and family!

American employers dont give enough time off and American employees dont take enough time off. Its a self-perpetuating phenomenon destined to end in burnout. As summer comes to a close, consider this question: Do you live to work or work to live?

Michael Dr. Woody Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook