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Vacation…or lack thereof

backyard vacayIt’s the last half of August, the final chance for some of us to enjoy a summer vacation. Will we?

Maybe not.

Did you know that American workers get the least mandated, paid vacation time in the world. Zero, in fact. Employers in the U.S. don’t have to give their staff any paid leave – although some are paid for at least a few of our 10 national holidays. That means that many, many workers get no paid vacation. This is simply not the way the rest of the “first world” treats its workers. Just how many days of mandated, paid vacation do people get elsewhere? Here’s a partial list: Sweden, 41; Finland, 40; Lithuania, 39; France, Portugal, Iceland, 37; Austria, 35; Slovia, Croatia, Poland, France, 31; Italy, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, 30; U.K., Australia, 28. And so on.

Maybe as an American worker you get vacation days…or maybe not. (One in four do not.) When I worked as a caregiver at an Alzheimer’s facility (part of research for a book I was writing at the time), none of the hourly staff got any paid vacation – or, for that matter, any sick leave. At another of my jobs, workers were entitled to 1 week after 1 full year of employment, 2 weeks after 2 years. And that was the max.

That’s bad. Equally as pitiful is the fact that full-time employees in the U.S., when they are given vacation time, take only half of their eligible days. And more than 60 percent report working while on vacation. (I cannot remember a vacation during which I did not work.) We work hard. And a lot. And on vacation (if we are lucky enough to get vacation and smart enough to actually take advantage of it). So that must mean we have the most productive work force on earth.

Uh, no.

Norway – which requires all employers to provide 25 days of paid annual leave — has the most productive work force. Luxembourg (also with a 25-day minimum leave) has the second most productive work force. U.S. is number 3 (yay, us!) but it’s worth noting that numbers 4-7 (Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany) trail only ever so slightly in productivity while mandating a month of paid vacation for every worker.

I’ve written about this subject before, back in the spring when I returned from Austria where people eat more calories, consume more red meat and smoke more cigarettes than Americans…and are significantly healthier. One explanation (among many) is their national vacation policy. I thought it was worth writing again about the health effects of taking vacation while we still have a few weeks remaining in August. So listen up.

The landmark Framingham Heart Study – the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease – found that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks compared to men who did take time off. And women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were almost 8 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year. Lack of vacation has also been linked to higher blood pressure, bigger waistlines and increased incidence of depression.

It’s easy to see how more work can translate into other unhealthy behaviors: more stress, unhealthy eating habits (eating on the run/ in the car, reliance on take-out and fast food), more time sitting in a chair, less sleep, less family time.

While it’s still summer, take a vacation!


1 Kim in Oregon { 08.17.16 at 6:28 pm }

Does it count as vacation if one does not get paid? The academic life will give one a summer ‘off’ and in my case, I’m working on research and other academic stuff at least 33% of the time. For me, vacation is going somewhere and promising not to check work email!

2 Lauren { 08.18.16 at 3:36 am }

When teachers get summers “off,” I don’t think of it as paid vacation in the way workers in other countries have mandated, paid vacation days. Teachers are paid for 9 months of work, not 12. Plus, for ambitious academics, summer is the time to do research and write, catch up on other people’s research, plan classes. The 2-week Winter and 1-week spring breaks would come closer to “paid vacation.” 15 days.

3 Evelyn Sharenov { 08.17.16 at 7:44 pm }

I would love to take a vacation while it’s still summer – or any time. When I think about it, I don’t think I’ve had a vacation since college. Merely lying down to relax for an hour has begun to feel like a vacation to me. Planning, taking, returning from vacation often seems like work. When I broke my kneecap several years ago, I had six weeks off from work, paid, with all benefits. No pain. I had pain meds. I didn’t go anywhere but in the house. My husband was in Rwanda. I didn’t ask him to come home. I didn’t want him home. That’s work. I had money to hire all the help I needed. Strangely, that time out of time, felt like a vacation.

4 Lauren { 08.18.16 at 3:30 am }

That DEFINITELY sounds like a vacation, Evelyn. Interesting that it took an injury to make it happen! I have found it impossible to take a true vacation in, well, decades. I don’t think of myself as a workaholic at all. But a writer is always working, isn’t she?

5 Orchid { 08.17.16 at 7:55 pm }

For the self-employed there are often only stolen moments of vacation. I try to force myself to go out everyday…to lunch, yoga or meeting a friend. 85% of the time I don’t do it because I might miss something…even though it will be on my phone and tablet.

6 Lauren { 08.18.16 at 3:25 am }

I know exactly what you mean, Orchid. My writing life is just like this. I don’t feel I am ever off the clock/ not working. I just started forcing myself to not go into my writing office (in the house) and not turn on the computer on one day of the weekend.This doesn’t mean I actually go dark (I have a smartphone), but at least I am not doing significant research or writing.

7 Dan { 08.20.16 at 11:08 pm }

It’s funny. Now that I’m largely self-employed and have more schedule flexibility than previously, I find that I have to “prove” to myself that I should take time off. I know it sounds weird, but somehow I feel even more guilty about taking a vacation. When I was working for others, I didn’t feel even close to as anxious about time off as I do now… thought it would be different. Maybe I just need to let myself off the hook!

8 Lauren { 08.22.16 at 6:02 pm }

This doesn’t sound weird to me at all. I feel exactly the same way about my writing life. Maybe it’s that when you’re self-employed the line between work and life is so porous. Also, the self-employed certainly have no paid vacation days!

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