America’s national vacation problem

By Franz Strasser
BBC News, Washington

media captionThe BBC asked people in Washington DC how many days they took off last year and watched them write that number down on a board.

As Americans enjoy an extra day away from the office over the long Labor Day weekend, many will reflect on the end of a summer when, once again, they took far fewer days of vacation than workers in other countries.

In July, the BBC published a video showing that not only are US workers not guaranteed vacation time by law, but that 40% choose not to take all of the days to which they are entitled.

In the US, work plays a big part in how people identify themselves and many take pride in working long hours. When we asked the BBC's audience why so many Americans chose not to take full advantage of their vacation days, these were some of the answers.

Over 1,000 comments were left on the BBC News Facebook page - and many said that they started to resent the culture that kept them from taking earned vacation.

We reached out to more than a dozen people to find out more about their stories. What we learned is that even though there is a culture of hard work and long hours in the US, people would like to take more time off.

Gerald Audet earned a PhD in physiology and has been working in science for the past eight years at three different work places (none of which he wanted to disclose for fear of retribution). At every company he was expected to think about his job 24 hours a day, he told the BBC.

"Don't mention any other things that you do, because that is looked down upon and looked at as a weakness," Audet, who is also a keen amateur triathlete, says.

He is allowed to take time off, but in Audet's case it means scrambling to get work done ahead of his vacation and working twice as hard when he comes back.

"This is how America is: you are expected to give everything you have, and if you don't you're unsuccessful."

Three-month vacation

But America hasn't always been that way, says John de Graaf of Take Back Your Time, an organisation challenging overwork.

image copyrightThe New York Times

In 1910, President Howard Taft proposed a three-month vacation for everyone. That move prompted the New York Times headline on 31 July that year: "How long should a man's vacation be?"

But anti-union movement made it impossible to fight corporations on this issue, de Graaf told the BBC. The US remains the only industrialised country without mandated paid vacation days.


Alaine Megan has not had a vacation in three years. She's a massage therapist, and is in physical therapy herself because her body is "starting to feel uncomfortable".

"An athlete trains hard, and then has to take a day off," Megan says. "Everybody needs a break to refresh. I can do better work on people after a vacation."

Her employer, whose name she doesn't want published for fear of losing her job, stopped paid vacation days and now wants notice a month in advance for unpaid days off. Taking off the day before or after Christmas is almost impossible; wanting to see your family just isn't a "good enough" reason, she says.

"Corporations are narrating the story of our lives at the moment, and they're doing it in such a way we start believing that narrative and feel we have little control." -Thomas Ditmar

It took a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, for Thomas Ditmar to rethink his approach to work. His last vacation was a trip to Eastern Europe with his wife - back in 2008.

He could have taken 20 days a year, but the recession changed how much he wanted to be away from the job.

"When the economy collapsed in 2008 everyone was laid off, including me eventually," Ditmar says. "Those who remained were very appreciative of still having a job, and the companies knew that."

Cancer experts at Johns Hopkins told the BBC that there is no known link between stress, exhaustion and cancer, but Ditmar's doctor told him they were concerned about him taking on too much after his diagnosis.

Henry Ford once said men work for two reasons: "One is for wages and one is for fear of losing their job." Ditmar says most people today feel the latter.

Unlimited days

The newest trend swings in the opposite direction: "unlimited vacation days".

Ryan Zane, a Silicon Valley recruiter, told the BBC that many start up firms offer this benefit because they don't have enough cash on hand to pay out an employee's remaining vacation days if he or she leaves the company.

"In reality, one in five employees in those situations actually take vacations, and the ones who do take less than two weeks," Zane says. "There's so much pressure to deliver products and upgrades."

Companies are competing with each other for employees through fringe benefits like serving food and a free gym, said professor emeritus at MIT, Lotte Bailyn, who studies the relationship between managerial practices and employees' lives.

media captionMany Americans do not use their holiday time

These perks can give companies reputations as great places to work, but in reality, Baylins says, "They just make it easier to stay at work and to keep working."

She says people would be better off in a company that says "Take four weeks and don't call in", rather have no guidelines around unlimited vacation days.

"Most of the data that I've seen shows that if anything people are taking less vacation days because without guidelines there's too much uncertainty."

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At HubSpot, a Boston-based marketing software company, unlimited vacation days have been in place since 2010 with great success, according to the company's vice president of culture and experience, Katie Burke.

The company does not keep track of its employees time away from work, so numbers on how many days employees take are unavailable. But an anonymous quarterly survey keeps track of employees' overall happiness.

For the system to work, HubSpot had to make sure its staff saw employees at the very top of the company taking time off. Two employees who took three weeks off to experience the World Cup in Brazil last summer were celebrated internally as great example, says Burke.

"We had to help managers send the right message and rethink how we live and how we work," she told the BBC. "Distance from a product or a team can help, and being unplugged helps to rethink something that seemed unsolvable."


A third of American workers are connected to the office while on vacation, says de Graaf. Many told the BBC they feel overwhelmed and afraid of what they will find upon their return to work.

Betsy Rizzo, a communications professional, says she would end up working unpaid overtime hours to catch up.

"There's this assumption that in order to get ahead you always have to be working and therefore not taking vacation days gets you brownie points," says Bailyn. "There's this notion that your whole identity is your occupational position."

She says Americans are long overdue for a conversation about vacation, says de Graaf.

"Americans talk so much about freedom, but how can you be free if you never get anytime away from work?"

See more responses here on Storify and comment on this topic here on Facebook.

You can reach Franz Strasser via email or twitter.

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