American Vacation By the (Depressing) Numbers
It wasn't always this way. In 1973, one in two families took at least two and a half weeks off annually, according to William D. Chalmers, the author of America's Vacation Deficit Disorder: Who Stole Your Vacation? Between 1976 and 2000, Americans took an average 20.3 vacation days each year. Coinciding with the rise of the internet in the new millennium, that number dropped to 16 days from 2001-2013, representing a "lost week." Today, Chalmers notes that American workers give back about $70 billion worth in vacation days a year when they forfeit unused accrued time off. That's as if the average worker wrote a check to their company for about $525 each year. Then there are the workers (one in four) who don't even have access to vacation benefits, since US law doesn't require employers to provide paid time off.
The Skift survey also found a gender disparity. Women were more likely than men to take no vacation. "Among people who took no vacation days, nearly 60 percent were women," explained Skift's executive editor, Dennis Schaal. Yet among people who took more than 20 days off per year, the majority were also women — 56 percent. When it comes to paid time off, it's either feast or famine for women in America. And perhaps many of these women are taking long periods of vacation to make up for a lack of paid family leave or because they are largely responsible for caring for older children, too.
Why Women Suffer More Burnout
Considering women are less likely than men to take any vacation, it's not surprising professional women burn out at a rate faster than their male counterparts. A Fast Company article on millennial women burnout went viral in 2016, revealing just how many women could relate. In the piece, writer Kelly Clay cites statistics that show many women head for burnout by age 30. Clay points to a McKinsey study that found women make up 53 percent of entry-level jobs but only 37 percent of midmanagement roles and 26 percent of vice president or senior manager roles. Somewhere along the line, they're dropping out. Only 11 percent of women in the study said they chose to leave the workplace to have a family, so it's not just because they're having children. An additional study from the University of Kansas found similar results. It looked at attrition rates of journalists and found that women reported higher levels of overload and intention to leave the field.
Clay blames burnout on the unrealistically high expectations of both female workers and employers in general, as well as the "always on" nature of work in our modern society. She noted that much of these expectations are self-imposed, like the idea that we should never really disconnect at night or while on vacation. Employers reinforce the message that this is what is expected to succeed. To illustrate the point, Clay quotes a former Google employee, Jenny Blake, who burned out after trying to balance her job with writing a book on the side:
"We are in unprecedented times in terms of the global, always-on organization. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline not to check email at night or first thing in the morning, and not all office cultures (or managers) endorse or demonstrate that restraint themselves. Work comes in at all hours, and it can be hard to create boundaries that keep it contained and allow for proper rest and renewal.
For younger women in particular, it can be hard to say no, especially in competitive jobs or industries where there would be a (perceived) line out the door for their replacement."
This always-on mentality isn't getting us ahead at work. As Clay points out, it may be holding women back from getting promotions and achieving career goals. Truly disconnecting on a vacation is one way to counteract burnout. When you take a vacation, you give your mind a chance to be creative and refresh. "Studies show that you need at least six consecutive days to get the full and lasting effect of even taking a vacation," Chalmers explained. And he warns that short weekends away may actually cause more stress and anxiety than they relieve. "Like fast food, there are a lot of calories but no nutrients."
Long hours and little leisure also lead to poor health. John de Graaf, the author of Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America, explains that women are at a higher risk for some of the negative physical effects. "Long stretches without vacation time increase men's risk of a heart attack by a third and women's by a half." In addition, women who don't take regular vacations are two to eight times more likely to suffer from depression than women who do.
Chalmers imagines a different world where everyone you know takes two weeks of uninterrupted Summer vacation — every Summer — just like they did in the 1970s. "Some packed the kids in the car and drove to a National Park, some went across country, and some went to their family cottages with family and friends. But everybody did it." There are many reasons to make this fantasy a reality. Chalmers notes that among people who take vacation, 65 percent come back feeling rested, rejuvenated, and reconnected with their families; 77 percent believe that their overall health improves after a vacation getaway; and over 80 percent report having a more positive outlook. Overwhelmingly, travelers say they feel less stressed, more energized, and more connected to loved ones. It also has intangible benefits, like making us more interesting, engaging people and better storytellers, he says. And of course, travel helps broaden our understanding of the world and leads to more empathy.
The US economy would also benefit from the return of lost vacation time. Chalmers notes the lack of time off costs the economy more than $1 trillion a year in side effects. "It comes in the form of on-the-job issues like taking more sick days, being unmotivated, low morale, depression, absenteeism, presenteeism, job turnover, and lost productivity, and of course all the associated healthcare and mental care costs." While time off would increase overall output, it would also be a boon to the US travel sector, potentially creating new jobs.
What's Causing This Crisis?
Trying to understand the big-picture factors at play, Chalmers identifies a few major societal changes since the height of America's vacation era of the 1970s. Middle-class incomes have stagnated or declined, leaving today's workers with less disposable income. Meanwhile, the average cost of a vacation has risen. There's also been a decline in union membership, making it harder for workers to negotiate time-off benefits. And technology makes it difficult for us to disconnect. Finally, Chalmers thinks American values have changed. The fact that we spend 98 percent of our time working shows that we value it over leisure. And many of us now compare our lifestyles to the rich and famous, rather than our middle-class neighbors, adding pressure to always make more money.
De Graaf agrees there is a "cultural disdain for leisure." He points out how American culture constantly praises "hard work" and being busy. Workers who take little time off are considered more dedicated. But considering productivity goes down when people are overworked, it's simply a myth that people who don't take vacation are better workers.
How America Stacks Up to the Rest of the Word — Hint: It's Not Good
America's lack of legal protection for vacation also leads to the stigma against it. Leisure is considered a luxury, not a right. If you take too much time off, you're lazy or not serious about your job. But we're one of the few countries who see it that way. "Only five countries, including the US, do not require that workers receive some paid vacation time," de Graaf explained. More than 20 years ago, the European Union established a legal right to at least 20 days of paid vacation a year. In Australia and New Zealand, workers have the same protection, while Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 days. Some countries even require employers to pay workers an added stipend to fund vacation. In Austria, for example, your employer will pay you a "13th month" salary during your month-long vacation, and the government will tax it at a lower rate. These countries have decided that leisure time off is valuable to the citizens and companies and are willing to support it with public policy.
Because there is no right to paid time off, many American workers get zero vacation. Employers voluntarily give private-sector workers an average of 10 days of paid time off and six paid holidays, which is less than the minimum required in most developed countries. And of course, many don't even take it.
You Can Do Something About It
Considering the state of American politics right now, the creation of a new federal right to vacation doesn't seem likely. We can't even get paid time off for new parents. But you can still change the sad state of vacation by overcoming your own biases against taking it. There are promising signs that Americans are at least starting to discuss prioritizing downtime. Business leaders like Arianna Huffington, who published The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time in 2016 and started a new well-being company called Thrive Global, are speaking up about how overwork is hurting our health, creativity, and overall success. And earlier this year, The New York Times declared sleep "the new status symbol." This growing appreciation for more work-life balance could create space for the average American to begin claiming their time off.
"Sometimes the barriers to taking time off are real, and sometimes not. It's important to know the difference," de Graaf explained. "If employers set an example by taking time off and encouraging it, workers need not fear taking it and should take it." On the other hand, he concedes, some employers may not see the value of vacation time. "In this case, it's important to meet with HR personnel and talk with them about why time off will be good for you and the company." And like Chalmers, de Graaf recognizes that in some cases, the cost of travel gets in the way. "Vacations need not be expensive. Consider camping or a road trip closer to home."