THE BLOG
05/31/2016 11:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is It Ethical to Take a Vacation?

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A panoramic view of the coast of Gozo, Malta, last week

Which of the following statements is most accurate for you?

A) I receive 15 days of paid vacation each year, and I take them--guilt-free.
B) I receive 15 days of paid vacation each year, but I feel guilty if I take them.
C) I haven't had a vacation in years. I'm loyal to my company or business and am proud of this fact.
D) I work for myself and don't take vacations. If I don't work, I don't make money.

Even if you chose A, you surely know people in the other three categories. We in the U.S. wear as a badge of honor the fact that we rarely, if ever, take time off from work. We need to earn a living, and many of us like what we do, so our reluctance to take vacations is justified, right?

No, it isn't.

Leaving work behind for a period of time is not only acceptable; it is our ethical obligation.

Here's why.

AN INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
Imagine taking up to six weeks of paid vacation each year and not feeling the slightest bit of guilt in doing so. It's not a fantasy; for many, it is a happy way of life. Consider this:

The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirements of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Australia and New Zealand both require employers to grant at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most of the rest of the world's rich countries offer at least six paid holidays per year. [Source: "No-Vacation Nation Revisited," Rebecca Ray, Milla Sanes, and John Schmitt, Center for Economic and Policy Research, May 2013]

Perhaps many U.S. companies view vacation days as a perk, a benefit, something above and beyond the call of duty. But for ethical reasons, it is a serious mistake for employers to view vacations this way, and it is just as wrong for employees to feel that they are being disloyal to their employer or their colleagues when they take time off.

WHAT DOES ETHICS HAVE TO DO WITH VACATIONS?
Five fundamental principles of ethical intelligence are:
1. Do No Harm
2. Make Things Better
3. Respect Others
4. Be Fair
5. Care

As I've discussed in previous blog posts, our ethical responsibilities apply not just to how we treat others but to how we treat ourselves, too. Although ethics is fundamentally a guard against self-obsession, it is right and good to treat ourselves with respect, fairness, and compassion and to avoid causing ourselves harm.

Now consider two states of affairs: how you feel after working for a long time without a break, and how you feel during and after some restorative time at the beach. Can you really be at your best when you're running on empty? Aren't you more likely to do a good job when your batteries are recharged? Taking a vacation from time to time enables you to do your job to the best of your ability, and this is one reason why vacations are an ethical issue.

Another reason why it is ethical to take time off periodically is because we simply owe it to ourselves to rest. The ethical arguments for taking vacations are in fact similar to those for staying home when you're sick. Doing the right thing for yourself and your clients means that when you've got a cold or the flu, you ought to stay home and get better. Being an ethical person also means cashing in those vacation days each year, out of respect for both yourself and those to whom you provide a service.

OBSTACLES TO TAKING VACATIONS AND HOW TO RESOLVE THEM
Let's look at some of the most common reasons for not taking time off, and how you can respond effectively to these challenges:

"I work for myself/My employer doesn't provide paid vacations/I've been laid off, and I need to work."
The reluctance to give up some future revenue is understandable, particularly in our current economy. But how often is this an excuse, rather than an accurate reflection of one's financial or work situation? Taking a vacation doesn't have to mean gambling big in Vegas or flying first-class to Sydney, as fun as these trips may be. With "staycations" becoming more popular, time away from work can mean nothing more than sleeping late, binge-watching The Office or Breaking Bad on Netflix, and eating lots of comfort food at home.

We budget for meals, clothing, and transportation. Shouldn't we also budget for a vacation? Yes, there ought to be a law mandating paid vacations, but until that comes to pass, we'll have to find creative ways on our own to take time off.

"I love my work, and I'm miserable when I'm away from it."
Maybe it's time to get a hobby. I'm reminded of Godfrey Reggio's astounding 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. The title is a Hopi term for "life out of balance." It's wonderful to be jazzed about your job--I feel the same way--but a rich, meaningful life involves things beyond work.

"Most of the people I work with aren't taking vacations, so I don't want to burden them with the extra work they'd have if I left for a while."
It's praiseworthy to want to avoiding causing undue stress on your colleagues, but you--and they--are entitled (ethically, if not legally) to some time off. Ultimately, the fair distribution of labor is a management issue, and employees shouldn't have to worry that a justifiable absence will result in an undue burden on the team.

I'm the only one at work who can do my job. The company, and my clients, can't afford for me to be away.
It's nice to feel wanted or needed, but few of us are truly indispensable, as much as we may hate to admit it. I submit that in most cases, the idea that you, and only you, can do your job is a delusion of grandeur rather than a reflection of reality.

"I feel guilty when I take vacations."
If you're not yet convinced that it's ethical to take time off, perhaps it's time to talk with a trusted adviser about why you feel you aren't worthy of a trip to the mountains or the shore, or even just some time to yourself. You have every reason to feel good about treating yourself right, and vacations, however you choose to spend them, are self-indulgent in the best possible way.

Checking e-mail, taking work-related phone calls, and reading material related to one's job are not the elements of a true vacation. A working vacation makes about as much sense as showing up for a corporate job in shorts and a tank top with a margarita in your hand. To the list of things for which there is a time--a time to be born, a time to die, a time to weep, a time to laugh--one might add, "a time to work, and a time to take a long break."

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This article appeared originally on Bloomberg.com. Read all of my Bloomberg columns here. The five principles of ethical intelligence are based on Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics.

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I welcome your comments on this article. And please consider sharing it with your colleagues, friends, and family (especially those who need a vacation)!