Work or Play

For American workers, vacations can be few and far between. Is that good for them — or your business?

The No-Vacation Nation Working hard for the money By Angela Howard

The alarm clock sounds. You get up, get showered, get dressed and go. You stop by Starbucks and jump in line with 15 other people, all waiting on a Vente coffee and an overpriced croissant. You check your Smart phone for the fifth time since you rolled out of bed and wish again that the baristas would move just a bit faster today.

Sound familiar? If you are one of the millions currently employed, it should, because this is the morning routine for many mainstream Americans. We get up and jump to get to work, doing our best to be caught up on the day before we walk in the door.

Preparation and timeliness are not too unorthodox. Our parents and grandparents strived for the same thing, but once their eight hours were up, they packed it in for the day and went home to relax with their families. Now, Americans are working well over 40 hours a week, staying late at the office or bringing work home with them, thanks to the latest and greatest technology.

So, how can we break the trend? Some would suggest a vacation, but if you live in the U.S. of A, those can be few and far between.

For many, vacation means getting away from it all, maybe on a cruise ship or a far away beach, but if you live in the United States, your time in the sun is vastly limited compared to those who live overseas. That is because most Americans are only allowed two or three precious weeks of paid time off in addition to a handful of national holidays, while workers in other developed countries receive significantly more.

According to a 2009 study by Mercer, a resources consulting company, more than two dozen industrialized countries require employers to offer their workers four or more weeks of paid vacation each year while Finland, Brazil and France guarantee at least six weeks off with pay.

Employers in the United States are under no such obligation. There is no law mandating this type of benefit — and government figures show that approximately 25 percent of all Americans do not have access to paid vacation. That makes the U.S. the only developed nation in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid leave on an annual basis, according to the report “No-Vacation Nation” released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The lucky ones?

About 75 percent of all U.S. workers are allotted some vacation time each year, but a 2010 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 57 percent actually use all of the days to which they are entitled. Compare that to the 77 percent of workers in Spain, 89 percent of workers in France who used up all of their time, and the question becomes why.

“America’s social structure is different than Spain’s so the overall mentality is different,” said Deneige Broom, a television anchor and reporter in Tallahassee, who spent time in Spain while she was a student of Florida State University. “We have a capitalistic society in America; in Spain, it’s socialistic. That mental difference is ultimately why we see the social differences when it comes to work, vacation and quality of life.”

After graduation, Broom signed up for a program with the Spanish government to teach English to young children in Madrid. Living abroad for a year, first with a family and then on her own, Broom quickly realized a stark difference in the way Spaniards live and work.

“In America, we’d judge quality of life by income. In Spain, more emphasis would be placed on enjoying family, friends and the things their culture has to offer.”

As co-owner of GwyneMark Photography in Santa Rosa Beach, Gwyne Owens understands the demands of the working world but says everyone should be afforded a chance to relax and unwind.

“People are happier when they have some time off. We seem to all work, work, work and stay busy instead of enjoying people and just life in general. We need time to relax.”

Prior to starting her own business, Owens worked in the recording department at the county clerk’s office, as a receptionist for a local attorney and as a legal secretary for an attorney/doctor. Each allowed her one week of paid time off each year, something she and those across the Pond agree needs to change.

“We [Americans] have a bad reputation in Europe, especially in Italy. They enjoy the little things like walking arm in arm with a friend and talking. They also eat slowly, and they spend time at dinner to visit,” Owens said.

That “work to live” mentality is the way Owens views life, which is why she and her family take the time to vacation and experience as much as possible — now.

Too much of a good thing?

From paid vacation to paid maternity leave, the variation from country to country is vast. Some say two weeks is enough while others say Americans need to work less and experience more.

“I think the time off given in other countries correlates directly with their mentality about work. This isn’t to say some Americans don’t feel the same way, but the overall feeling in many countries is that life is for living,” Broom said. “There isn’t much living that can be done chained to a desk with two weeks off every year.”

Some companies allow their employees to take unpaid time off when they have no paid time off or have used up their allotment for the year, but most do not. Some companies also use paid vacation as an incentive to entice prospective employees to join the company. That coveted time is still typically limited to two or three weeks each year. But that is still considered — by many Americans — a great deal considering the Fair Labor Standards Act ( does not require companies to pay their workers for time not worked. That includes vacations, sick leave, holidays and short-term disability.

According to the Journal of Happiness Studies, working makes Americans happy. The study’s author, Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. He found that Americans associate hard work with success, and thus, the harder they work, the happier they are. In contrast, Okulicz-Kozaryn found that Europeans associate happiness with leisure, so for them, the more time off to relax and unwind, the better.

However, psychologist Jay Reeve says vacation is two-fold, acting as a stress-reliever and a way to enjoy life outside the office, and the amount of time wanted and/or needed depends less on the country and more on the individual.

“There’s not a one size fits all, but I think there’s a tendency in this culture for folks not to pay attention to their own stress,” said Reeve. “There are folks who need more than two weeks to recover from the stress of work; some say two days is enough.”

Reeve admits that he himself often takes less than his allotted vacation time each year but says it’s by choice. The president and CEO of the Apalachee Center — which helps people and families in North Florida with emotional, psychiatric and substance abuse — says vacation time in and of itself is not a panacea for everyone, but employers need to realize that each person is different.

Working like robots

Sayings and quotes are found on everything from plaques to coffee mugs, urging folks to enjoy the simple things in life. This writer has one in her home that reads: “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” But for many, living and life are one in the same, and work is the driving force.

Others fear that they could lose a job or be looked down upon by an employer for taking time away from the office. And with unemployment numbers still high nearly across the board, people are lining up to do anything and everything to make a buck and pay the bills, including forgoing holidays and vacations.

What if you were required to take vacation time and lots of it, relatively speaking?  Would you move to another country to make that “what if” a reality? While many dream of long leisurely days relaxing on the beach, most Americans can’t tear themselves away from work long enough to fully appreciate a three-day weekend, let alone a week-long trip. We are electronically attached wherever we go, and many have a hard time not checking in every 30 seconds. Yet Northwestern University professor Adam Galinsky says “detaching from a familiar environment can help [you] get new perspectives on everyday life.”

So the next time you have a day off or are out of town with family or friends, put down the computer/iPad/phone/etc. and take a look around. You may be surprised — or even inspired — by what you see.