Do American Technology Workers Do Vacations All Wrong?

As the summer winds down, there is no better time to reconsider how you plan future vacations. Here’s why. Hint: Public-sector employees may need to take more high-quality time off, like their private-sector counterparts.

by / August 17, 2019

Do Americans have a vacation problem?

Most of the world would say an emphatic "yes!"

When my family lived in the United Kingdom for seven years in the 1990s, our English friends just shook their heads when we described any upcoming “holiday” plans. (Side note: Brits typically use the term “holiday” in the same way that Americans use “vacation.” Also, they say “bank holiday” when we typically say “holiday,” such as Christmas and New Year’s Day.)

“You need to take a fortnight off to really relax,” our friends would say. “One week is just not enough time to relax, get away and decompress.”  

Indeed, most of France seems to be at the beach (or at another holiday location) for the entire month of August, and the majority of my European friends made two weeks of family holiday time a priority.  

Vacation By the Numbers

Nevertheless, many American readers would be happy with just one week away from the office grind.

Back in 2013, CNBC published this article titled: No Paid Vacation? You Must Be an American:

“The report examined vacation policies in 21 developed countries, including the United States. The researchers found that every country except the U.S. had laws making employers offer between 10 and 30 paid vacation days a year.

France's laws granted employees the most paid vacation—30 days a year. But several countries actually guarantee workers more total paid time off when mandated paid holidays are added.”

Another article in 20somethingfinance.com more recently reported that the U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World:

As bad as these numbers seem, there is an even bigger problem (in my opinion) that is getting worse. Even when employees are given paid vacation time off, most of us aren’t even using half of the vacation time given. This Forbes article on vacation trends lays out more sobering statistics:

“Only 23% of employees are taking all of their eligible time off, according to a recent survey by job site Glassdoor. In fact, the average employee takes about half (54%) of his or her vacation time—a number that hasn’t changed much since Glassdoor asked the question in 2014.”

And when people do take their vacation days, they aren’t 100% vacationing. Two-thirds (66%) report working when they take vacation, which is higher than the number in 2014 (61%).

“When we look at the top reasons why people are not taking vacation time, it boils down to fear,” [Scott Dobroski, Glassdoor community expert] says. “The number one reason is that people fear getting behind, or that no one else at their company can do the work, or they feel they can never be disconnected.”

Reasons Why Americans Are “Vacation-Phobic”

So what is it about our culture of work in the USA that leads to this aversion to taking time off from work?

This article from 2018 highlights Kimble Applications research that looked at reasons behind these trends:

  • Vacations sometimes cause (not reduce) stress. Twenty-seven percent of respondents felt they had 'too many projects or deadlines' and 13% fear 'the amount of work they'll return to.'
  • My boss doesn't like it. Nineteen percent of respondents reported being 'pressured by their manager not to take a vacation.'
  • Thanks to technology, it's harder than ever to unplug. Thanks to (or perhaps 'no thanks' to) mobile devices and ubiquitous wifi, it's harder than ever to disconnect, clear one's mind and relax. Forty-eight percent of respondents say they 'check on work while vacationing,' including 19% who do it every day.
  • It'll derail my career. Fourteen percent of respondents believe not using all of their vacation time 'increases their chances for advancement.' As for 'derailment' opportunities, once again note Exhibit A above. (P.S. The teller of the story is no longer with the company.)”

Another article from TheLadders.com adds six reasons why a two-week vacation could be too long (with details under each heading available at the link).

  • You worry too much about returning
  • It may be challenging to get back to work
  • Your coworkers may be resentful
  • You can be out of the office less
  • Your worth could be impacted
  • Save the long vacation for something truly important

The Facts About Our Need for Quality Vacation Time

But running contrary to this sad American vacation trend are the facts about our need to take time off for a healthier, happier life. These stats seem to be even worse for tech workers, who can't seem to "cut the cord" as well as others.

Almost annually, I have blogged about how work-life balance (or work-life fitness or another name) is essential to succeed in the long run, both for individuals and companies and government organizations. I have also listed career burnout as one of the top seven reasons I see security professionals fail. Bottom line, when you see your career challenges as a marathon and not a sprint, regular vacations that are restful just make common sense.

When tech workers or security pros do take vacations, here are some tips on how to keep vacations safe online and whether to consider a digital detox.

This article from The Economist lists reasons that “holidays” are good for workers and companies alike. Here’s an excerpt:

“Indeed, just as employees need a break from the workplace, companies sometimes need a break from their employees. After a trading scandal at Société Générale, a French bank, in 2008, Britain’s then regulator, the Financial Services Authority, recommended that all traders take a two-week break at some point in the year. The aim was to ensure that any unusual dealing patterns would be discovered while the miscreant was away from their desk.

Senior managers can also benefit from seeing what happens when their juniors head to the beach. Does office morale improve as soon as a mid-level manager disappears? If so, this suggests that he or she is not running the department well. Does an underling impress when standing in for their boss? In that case, they may be overdue a promotion. …”

This article from Fast Company describes, “How To Take A Two-Week Vacation Guilt-Free.”

Here are their Fast Company tips (and you can read the details at the link):

  • Create A Vacation Action Plan
  • Make Sure There Is Someone To Cover You
  • Expect Pre-Vacation Madness
  • Limit The Check-Ins
  • Reduce The Amount Of Email You’ll Come Back To
  • Brace For Push-Back

My favorite advice from this Fast Company article was this: “I don’t come back to hundreds and thousands of emails,” he says. “I come back to one.” (This is after he has his fill-in assistant go through the emails and summarize and act as appropriate.)

For those who want to get other ideas and research this topic further, I like these related articles which will stretch your thinking in different directions on time away from work:

The last article offered this recommendation:Time Off suggests companies should approach vacation taking from another perspective: instead of taking away the cap on paid-time-off, institute a mandatory minimum amount of vacation days employees need to take in a year. ‘It’s floor versus the ceiling. People may not like free for alls. They like to know the norm.’”

Final Thoughts

Some of you may be thinking, why post this topic as the summer is about to end? (Or, where was this advice in May/June?) The simple answer is that we should start thinking about next year (or your next big vacation) now, before plans get locked in.

Another way to view this topic: I have found the attitude toward allowing (more) vacations is generally better in the public sector, and there is a culture that allows for time off. Gov tech and security organizations should use this reality as an advantage to attract and retain talent.  

I am also fascinated with the wider questions as to why the USA is so different than the rest of the world regarding work and time off. What is the difference, and why are we less willing to take longer vacations when we have the paid time to do so? I find this article from The Atlantic to be surprising and thought-provoking — definitely worth reading in its entirety: "Workism Is Making Americans Miserable."

Quote: “But a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”

The author also points out that, “A staggering 87 percent of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup. That number is rising by the year.”  

Maybe it’s time for a longer vacation?

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