The Great American Vacation: Vanishing Into Thin Air?

For Joan Mannix, an attorney in Chicago, finding time for vacation has become something like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Last year she managed to take just four days off. Another year included a trip to Cancun where, upon arriving, she walked into her hotel room to find the phone ringing -- and her boss on the other end of the line.

This summer Mannix and her husband and 8-year-old daughter planned a rare weeklong vacation, renting a house near Lake Michigan with her brother and his family. But it wasn't much of a break.

"I worked Saturday through Wednesday -- and we left the following Saturday," she says. "I'm sure it's bad for me. [But] it's just one of those things, a sacrifice I have to make to support my family."

Dwindling vacation time in the United States is a well-documented trend that, according to a host of surveys, is only getting worse. A Gallup poll taken in May found that only 43 percent of Americans had summer vacation plans.

Less Time to Take Off

And even those who make vacation plans devote less time to them: A survey taken earlier this year by CareerBuilder.com found that while 84 percent of workers planned to take at least some time off this year, 32 percent were taking five days or less, and one out of 10 were limiting themselves to a long weekend.

In some cases, workers have little choice. Americans earn on average just two weeks of vacation time each year -- far less than the Germans, who receive an average of 27 days, or the French, who get 39.

But increasingly, Americans are not even taking the days allotted them. A May survey by Expedia.com estimated that workers would give back to their employers more than 574 million unused vacation days this year.

"People don't know how to take vacations anymore," says Jennifer Sullivan of CareerBuilder.com.

'Leisure Guilt'

Part of the problem may be a sense of job insecurity. Many people worry that if they go away, their bosses will quickly discover they're replaceable. For other workers, it's the opposite: They assume no one can do their job while they're gone.

Both operate under a sense that work is where they belong -- a feeling that has become so pervasive that one psychologist recently documented a new syndrome called leisure guilt.

For Mannix, that term is an apt description.

"I have a sense that I'm almost doing something wrong if I'm not working," she says.

"We have glorified work and trivialized leisure," says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa and author of "Work Without End."

While the inability to stop working may now seem intrinsically American, historians like Hunnicutt note it wasn't always like this. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Americans actually saw their working hours steadily shrink to the point where economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that economic growth would eventually lead to a 15-hour work week.

Instead, Americans' time at work has increased by roughly five weeks since 1970.

Many academics blame the trend on consumerism -- arguing that the nation's increasing focus on getting and spending means Americans are more likely to choose wealth over leisure.

On the other hand, it's also possible many are deciding vacation isn't all it's cracked up to be. In an era when air travel involves throwing out your bottled water, and gas prices are at near-record levels, getting away may seem like more hassle than it's worth.

"Vacations can be stressful," says Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. That's particularly true if a vacation is financially taxing or involves travel.

"Right before you go on vacation your stress levels climb," she says. And although those levels do tend to drop over the course of the vacation, research has shown the relaxation effect lasts on average for just three days once workers have returned.

The BlackBerry Effect

Then there's the BlackBerry effect: Thanks to new technology like cell phones and portable e-mail devices, people are increasingly taking their work with them on vacation. That may make getting away easier for some. But for others, it makes vacation less enjoyable and in some cases, not worth it.

"Even if you're sitting on a beach working on a laptop, you're still working," says Sullivan.

According to the CareerBuilder.com survey, the phenomenon of people always being reachable has gotten so bad that some workers have resorted to lying. Eleven percent of workers admitted to making up "bad wireless connections" to avoid work while on vacation.

Still, despite the fact that more and more workers are choosing not to get away, Americans actually put a higher premium on leisure than ever before. A new Washington Post survey this week finds 53 percent agreed with the statement that leisure time is "the important thing" and that the purpose of work is to make it possible to have leisure time.

Only 37 percent agreed with the statement that work is "the most important thing" and the purpose of leisure is to recharge people's batteries so they can do a better job. When the same question was asked in 1970, the results were nearly reversed, with work beating out leisure by 12 percentage points.

But academics like Hunnicutt don't see the current trend of less vacation time letting up anytime soon.

"I think it will be substantially worse for my grandchildren," he says.

Better get to Disney World now, while you can.

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