Why Won’t Americans Take Vacation?

I have been working now for over 20 years in the technology industry, and in every company that I have worked, people will complain that they don’t get enough time off, but still refuse to use the vacation times that are given.

When did the phenomenon begin?

Back in the eighties, it was said that the Japanese were hard working and that Americans were lazy.  I think this caused an industrial complex to develop in the USA, especially in the technology industry.   We resolved to do better, and catch up with the competition, and in doing so we created a work culture of not necessarily working smarter, but of working harder.  Engineers in American are now working themselves to death (known as Karoshi in Japan), similarly to what the Japanese did in the past.  Recognizing that there was a problem then, the Japanese government implemented a possible fix with the mandate of required time off work with pay.  So the Japanese are smarter yet again, realizing the value of family and time off work, and has left us stuck with the legacy of this unhealthy competition. Some might claim that our work culture has enabled us to have better standard of living, but this is debatable, and even if it did, at what cost to our families!

For a summary on how much vacation times are given in some countries including the USA, take a look at the site from a CNN special on the subject.

Our attitude towards vacation

If we compare Europeans and Japanese with Americans, there is a distinct difference in how personal time given by companies is viewed and used by employees.  I am now working for a company based in Europe, people there get roughly two times the amount of vacation times Americans get per year, and for the most part, they use every bit of this time to unwind and spend time with their families, they cannot even be reached when on vacation.  Compare that to how we use our time in America; at the end of the year, the companies I have worked for has to beg us Americans to take time off, some vacation times end up being rolled over and eventually paid out, and others are oftentimes lost.   Also, when Americans are on vacation, many still keep in touch with what’s happening in the office, still answering emails, and frequently checking into the office to see if they are needed.  There are many reasons Americans are afraid or hesitant to take a vacation, one of this is the fear of competition and another is uncertainty of the future due of the struggling economy thus the fragility of the labor market.
Bloomberg’s Businessweek magazine addressed the issue of our reluctance to vacation in the article, “Do Us A Favor Take A Vacation.” In the article, the argument for Americans to take a vacation is addressed.  Very interesting read, and mirrors most of what I am saying here.

Fear of Competition

The culture of layoffs in the nineties did not help; it has exacerbated the problem as now American workers are figuring that if they work harder, then they might not be chosen in the pack to be laid off when that time comes.  In addition to the fear of layoff, there is also the fear of being replaced by more savvy and lower paid worker.  As companies turn more and more to imported labor, bringing in  skilled foreign professionals into the country, workers are becoming more fearful of being replaced, and to ally this fear, they spend more time working harder with the hope that their value will be elevated.  This is not a healthy situation, and hopefully as the economy recovers, some of this fear will be reduced and people will get back to the point where they feel safe enough to stop and spend time outside of the office.

Looking to the future

As I think about what the future holds for us and our children, I don’t foresee any improvements in the near term as the job market gets more and more global each day. Workers here and elsewhere have to prove their worth, and the best way most people know how is to work harder. However, some newer and younger companies are beginning to realize that employee overwork is an issue, and that innovation cannot be driven in this climate, so they are giving employees incentives and time to be innovative, that is encouragement to be working smarter instead of harder. With this approach, although the job market is expanding, and there is more competition for available job, if employees are allowed to build their knowledge base even while working, if they are laid off, or have to change jobs for any numerous reasons, they could still be marketable since they will still have current skills that the market demands. If workers feel safe in their knowledge, chances are they will have a more relaxed attitude in knowing that they can recover from any job situation, and thus will tend to spend less time being overworked, and more time with family. Although the future is bleak, with the right company culture, changes can be made.

Finding balance yourself

There must be balance between work and life, we need to work hard to meet our obligations and fulfill the contract we entered into with our employers, yet we still need to step back from time to time, relax and enjoy our families. Let’s examine our motives for working long hours, and make sure, it’s not insecurities that’s driving us, but a genuine desire to be a contributor. In addition, If your job is one that does not encourage employees to be cross trained and be updated in the latest technology, instead of spending all the overtime in the office, invest in yourself, and get some external training to ensure your marketability, and thus improve yourself worth. In the end know where you are on the job and what your needs are for job satisfaction, rest and relaxation. There must be balance.
So if you fall into this category of the overworked, go use your time off, work to live, not live to work!

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Comments

  1. An interesting write up indeed. Show me an over wired- vacation deprived- overworked workaholic, and I can say with certainty that there is something fundamentally out of whack in his or her life. A recipe for a dysfunctional marriage in wrack and ruin, and disintegrating productivity laden with unnecessary mistakes due to brain fatigue. If you take it further, you will discover that there is an underlying psychological problem. This type of highly charged energizer battery powered individual that goes on and on , more than likely, has some compulsive obsession with perfection, inability to delegate, and associated anxiety tendency. Bad news for the company, bad news for the family entity. Just a thought. ..lol

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