Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online
I have a confession to make: I'm not very good at taking vacations. That doesn't mean that I don't take them at all, just that it's a bit of a struggle. Unfortunately I'm not alone, particularly among Americans. Expedia's annual Vacation Deprivation survey found that, in 2009, 34% of employed U.S. adults did not take their full allotment of vacation days. What's worse is that workers in the United States receive fewer vacation days on average than those in any other major country (13 days compared to 15 in Japan, 19 in Canada, 26 in the UK, and 38 in France).
I was recently reflecting on this issue during a vacation with my wife in Paris. As we sat in one of the innumerable sidewalk cafés, everyone in the city seemed to be relaxed and on holiday (and given the average number of vacation days given to employees in France, perhaps they were). In contrast, to make sure I used my "time off" productively, I had brought a laptop to work on the plane as well as an iPad and BlackBerry to keep up with emails. So was I relaxed and enjoying Paris? Sure I was -- but probably not as much as the Parisians.
Naturally during the course of the week, I thought less and less about work and stopped checking my BlackBerry so obsessively. (It also helped that my wife threatened to throw the damn thing in the Seine if I kept looking at it!) By the end of the week, however, I started worrying about all of the unanswered emails and backlog of other work, so by the time we got home I was already anxious about my pending workload -- and whatever psychological benefits accrued from the vacation quickly wore off. Then it struck me that it has probably been at least 10 years since I took two consecutive weeks of vacation -- a period of time that would perhaps allow me to really unwind and relax. But that also seems to be an American pattern. According to the Expedia survey, in 2009 only 10% of U.S. workers planned to take two full weeks of vacation. A larger percentage planned to take one week and then a few days here and there.
Why is it so difficult for me, and many other American professionals and managers, to take significant amounts of vacation, especially when studies show that time away from work actually enhances productivity and health? One reason might be that many of us have bought into the technologically enabled culture of instantaneous response and immediate action. We have to respond to our customers/clients/managers/employees as soon as possible, or else we won't be perceived as effective or successful or competitive. As a result we've become email and IM and text message junkies that complain about the flood of incoming messages, while also feeling the adrenaline rush of constantly getting things done and out the virtual door. Vacation potentially stops the adrenaline rush -- sort of like a stint in rehab -- so we avoid it or take our addiction devices with us, turning vacation into scaled-down work in a different venue.
The second reason that Americans like me constrain our vacations might be that our organizations don't really encourage time off. Sure, there are official vacation policies and benefits -- but there also are projects and task forces and studies and all sorts of other goals that must be addressed. So the subtle message is that you should take vacation -- but also make sure that you get all of your work done, and meet your goals without sloughing off your assignments to anyone else. And taking two consecutive weeks of vacation might just leave you too far behind and therefore might not be worth it.
A few years ago, when I was a consultant to the World Bank, I remember a note that then-president, Jim Wolfensohn, sent to all staff members in mid-July thanking them for their hard work during the year and encouraging them to take their vacations. He said that it was important for them to recharge their batteries and refresh their thinking. This attitude and perspective may be common in international institutions and in Europe or other parts of the world. But in the United States, where people even question whether President Obama should take a vacation, it doesn't seem to be the norm.
Perhaps, though, it should be. Maybe it's time that America catches up to the rest of the world in vacation practices. I know that I'm going to give it a try. What are your thoughts?