Are You Suffering from Vacation Deprivation?

ByCatherine Valenti

June 25, 2003 -- — If it feels like you're stuck behind your desk on a sunny summer day while the rest of the world is on vacation, that's because you are and it is.

Few other industrialized countries have as little vacation time as America, where there aren't even legal guarantees of vacation time.

Just ask Matthew Mortellaro. Working in his first job out of college, the 23-year-old New York City-based publicist is already disillusioned with the world of work. The reason? He only gets five paid vacation days a year.

Mortellaro's company, which he declined to name, grants five vacation days to its employees after they've been working at the job more than six months. A year later, they get a total of 10 vacation days.

But for the St. Louis native, who often uses his vacation time to go home to visit his family, the short amount of time off has become a sore subject, especially when friends in Europe enjoy a month of vacation each year in their first jobs out of school.

"It kind of annoys me and makes me feel unfulfilled," says Mortellaro. "Is that all my life is about — working? What's the point of working all the time when all you do is work? I want to be able to appreciate it, too."

Mortellaro's experience is typical of many Americans, most of whom get very little vacation time when compared to workers in other industrialized nations. U.S. workers aren't guaranteed any vacation time by law and take an average of 10.2 vacation days a year after three years on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In contrast, workers in the United Kingdom are guaranteed 20 paid vacation days by law and take an average of 25 days off a year. Even in notoriously hard-working Japan, workers have a legal right to 10 days off and take an average of almost 18 vacation days a year.

Vacation Time Shrinking

Now there are signs many Americans are taking even less vacation. With the U.S. unemployment rate continuing to tick upwards, many recruiters and work-life experts say they're noticing workers are becoming more reluctant to take time off.

Nearly half of 730 executives recently surveyed, for instance, said they would not use all of the vacation time they were entitled to this year, according to Cleveland-based search and recruitment firm Management Recruiters International, known as MRI. Of those executives, 58 percent said their workloads were responsible for the decision.

"At the very senior level, you're seeing a complete burnout of vacation time — [executives] are just not taking it," says Patrick Sylvester, chief executive of Banister International, MRI's Philadelphia-based global job placement division. "They're stretched, there's a lot less of them and they're under a lot of pressure to deliver."

And with many companies possibly looking to further cut their employee headcount, many workers are hesitant to leave the office for long periods of time lest they be perceived as slacking off — and expendable.

"That's part of the American workplace culture, devotion as demonstrated through longer days and longer years," says Lonnie Golden, associate professor of economics at Penn State University in Abington, Pa. "When times are good they think it lends itself to promotion, when times are bad they think it gives them security."

Taking Off But Plugging In

Workplace experts say they are also noticing another trend — people going on vacation but not really leaving the office, using some of their time off to check in with the office and clients.

Charly Rok, a 38-year-old New York City-based public relations executive, is one example. Rok sometimes goes away on vacation for a few days at a time, but rarely takes a full week off. And even on the short trips that she does manage to take, she checks her work e-mails and returns phone calls so she doesn't miss any important work.

"It's hard in this industry and in this economy. You need to deliver, you need to be accessible and you need to multi-task," she says.

That kind of vacation can be both good and bad, say experts. While checking into the office does offer advantages — workers won't be returning to a pile of unanswered calls and e-mails for one — it does rob them of valuable time to unplug from their day-to-day routine.

"Vacation should be really defined as a time when we can really turn off those tech work savers and just relax and have fun," says Robert R. Butterworth, psychologist with International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles, who counsels patients with stress-related disorders.

Unfortunately, the mounting workloads of many U.S. employees has made some view a vacation as just a quick break before the inevitable daily grind sets back in.

"It's not really vacation," says Golden. "I call it postponement. You're working like a dog before it, then when you come home [work] is all stocked up."

Grassroots Campaign

Vacation shrinkage has prompted one author, Joe Robinson, to start a grassroots campaign to combat a society moving more and more toward overwork. The aim: To establish a law providing three weeks of vacation for any U.S. worker who has worked at a job for one year, and four weeks after three years.

"The idea is to make a slight shift in how vacations are perceived; that is by making them legal," says Robinson, who started his "Work to Live" campaign two years ago, lobbying for the law with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman in Washington D.C.

The war in Iraq had put the issue on the back burner, says Robinson. But now, with a recently-published book, Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, he has renewed his push for a minimum-leave law. Robinson says he's gotten 50,000 signatures for the campaign so far.

"There's nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic," he says. "But it's an overwork ethic that's taken hold in the past 10 years or so."

Productive or Just Burnt Out?

Some argue Americans' strong hyper work ethic is what keeps the country's economy going at full throttle.

To be sure, American productivity has been steadily improving in recent years. But some economists say the long hours that U.S. workers are putting in haven't necessarily lead to productivity gains in all segments of the economy.

For example, manufacturing output per hour actually declined 0.4 percent in the United States in 2001, while countries like Italy, France and the United Kingdom, whose workers routinely take four to five weeks off a year, saw increases, according to the latest figures from the Labor Department.

"It really boils down to how you're measuring productivity," says Penn State's Golden. "If you look over the course of the year or in productivity per hour, Europeans are right there with Americans, if not ahead."

A Heavy Toll

Work experts add that working too much can also take a psychological or health toll on workers, leading to increased absenteeism, poor motivation and, ultimately, burnout.

Some 34 percent of 632 men and women surveyed by health insurer Oxford Health Plans said they have no down time at work. Another 32 percent work and eat lunch at the same time, while 32 percent never leave the building once they arrive at work. Nineteen percent of the workers said their job made them feel older than they are and 17 percent say work causes them to lose sleep at home.

"If you have a job that's very creative and you don't take time off you hit a wall and you need a change," says Butterworth. "The break will allow you to refresh your brain cells."

Alfred Portale, chef and owner of Gotham Bar & Grill in New York, heeds that advice. He routinely takes Friday afternoons off to spend long weekends with his two children before returning to work on Mondays. He also gives his workers at least two or three weeks vacation a year and tries to allow for flexibility if they need time off.

His philosophy: Workers who are happy are loyal and productive.

"Being away from work too much is counterproductive, but being there all the time and getting overworked breeds a lot of [negative] things," he says.