Friday, July 25, 2008

Vacation days: do you use them or lose them?

I'm away on vacation this week, but here's a vacation-themed rerun from two summers ago:

How many vacation days do you get? And do you take all those you're entitled to? According to an article in today's RedEye (the Chicago Tribune "lite"), 574 million vacation days a year go unused in America.

We already get relatively little paid vacation to start with. According to the article, Americans average 14 vacation days a year-- and 25% of U.S. employees get no paid days off (of any kind, including sick days and holidays). Compare that to European countries, where employers are required by law to give 20 or 25 days of vacation. The U.S. is the only industrialized country without laws giving employees the right to paid vacation.

then, even though we have less vacation days to begin with, we still leave more days unused-- 4 a year, on average, compared to 1 or 2 in European countries. So we actually end up taking less than half the amount of vacation as our European counterparts.

The article includes a quote:

Culturally, it might be a matter of priorities: Europeans may prefer to be rewarded for their work with vacation, while Americans like having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world and are willing to work longer to get paid more, Allegretto said.

That is, Europeans tend to choose time over money, while Americans pick money over time. If you take it a step further, Europeans prefer time, and Americans prefer "things" (yes, I know in some cases people are saving the money, so it's "security" or "time in the future" versus "time now"... but in a lot of cases, really, it's "things"). Obviously these sorts of choices fit into a much larger cultural context, both as far as the relative value of time versus money/"things" as well as how taking time off is viewed in the workplace.

The organization Take Back Your Time is making a valiant attempt to affect this greater cultural context as much as it can. They have a Take Back Your Time Day coming up on October 24th-- nine weeks before the end of the year, because Europeans work the equivalent of nine weeks (360 hours) less a year than Americans on average, between more paid time off and less overtime-- and I will surely write more about it as the time approaches. But I encourage you to check out the website in the meantime!

As for me, I never let a vacation day go to waste, but I also don't always pick time over money. This is a little complicated, but... I get 15 vacation days and 9 comp days (which function the same as vacation, really). I roll over the maximum of 10 days vacation every year (I used all 9 comp days my first year but none of my then-10 vacation days-- mostly because I wasn't eligible to during my first six months, which included the summer-- and have maintained those in reserve ever since), but I've used my full allotment of 10 vacation days in year two, and am on pace to use all 15 in year three. I'm also able to cash out up to 3 unused comp days at the end of each year, and I try to do so, but I also make sure to use at least 6 comp days so I don't leave anything on the table.

There are definitely times I'm tempted not to take vacation because there's too much to do. It's usually hectic and stressful catching up when I get back, and sometimes I feel bad about important work being delayed when I'm not there to do it. But taking time off makes me happy, whether it's for a long vacation, an extended weekend, or just a single day off when I really need it. I like spending time with people I care about, visiting interesting places and doing interesting things, and having time that's obligation-free. And I think in the long run it's good for my performance at work, too; when I've gone too long without a vacation, my focus and concentration wanders and my stress levels increase, and I'm just not at my best.

How much vacation time do you get? Do you use all of it? How do you feel about that?

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