too busy for vacation

When I worked in Germany I was surprised to see that most German companies shut down for at least a couple of weeks in August. I don’t mean that most of the employees stayed away, or that business continued remotely. The accepted cultural norm was just to shut down, turn off the lights, set up out-of-office emails and leave. Everyone.  The whole office, except for a few IT guys.  Yet I see employees here in America postpone vacations because they are “too busy.” I suspect, however, that they are not “too busy,” and that there are more sinister psychological factors at work. So why are Americans so terrified of time away from work?

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Here are a couple of interesting facts:

  • A survey by Management Recruiters International of 730 U.S. executives in 2003 found that 47 percent surveyed wouldn’t use all their vacation time, and 58 percent said that the reason was job pressures. This same study also found that 35 percent said that they had too much work to take a vacation and that 17 percent felt that their boss was not supportive of employees taking all of their vacation days.
  • A study by Circadian Technologies found that the average overtime rate in extended-hours businesses in 2004 was 16.2 percent – that is almost one extra day of work each week. This is an increase over the 12.6 percent rate in 2003. Along with the increase in overtime came an increase in the absenteeism rate, up from 5.8 percent in 2003 to 12.4 percent in 2004. Of course this compounds the problem because when people don’t show up for work other people are asked to do overtime to pick up the slack. In general companies with high amounts of overtime had absenteeism rates of 17 percent, versus 9 percent in companies with low amounts of overtime.

To draw a conclusion between these two facts would be premature, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it. I see a lot of grinding overtime and delayed vacations in the corporate environment where I work. I also see a lot of “pseudo-vacations.” Here are a few examples:

  • Employees take their BlackBerries on vacation with them and answer emails – sometimes even if they don’t need to do so.
  • I had one colleague tell me he would never go on a cruise because he would be unable to check email or voicemail while at sea.
  • Another colleague answered an email at midnight the day before she was scheduled to be induced to give birth.
  • I once passed out from a raging fever and a bad case of pneumonia (a weird experience, waking up on the floor half an hour later) right before a meeting because I felt I could not miss it.  Instead of going to the hospital, I dragged myself into the office. Being recently unconscious, my contribution was minimal.
  • I know people at work who have missed weddings and funerals and children’s birthdays – because they were “too busy at work.”
  • I know more people than I can count who broke up with their boyfriends/girlfriends because they were too busy to maintain their relationships.

Just to keep things in perspective, I’m not a neurosurgeon and my colleagues are not oncologists. No one dies if our work is not done on time. Sure, some critical earnings info might be late or a SOX certification might be delayed, but these are big companies and there are many people to cover the slack. I always need to ask someone who is too busy for vacation: “If you are so mission-critical that you can’t miss work for vacation, would Massive Corporation, Inc. still be able to continue if you were hit by a bus?”

Many colleagues would answer “no” but the truth is “yes.” The corporation will continue if you go on vacation. I sometimes wonder if people are just frightened of demonstrating just how unimportant they are to the overall machinery of the company. I have taken several cruises and long European vacations and never once checked my email or voicemail. Once there was an emergency that needed my attention, but one of my staff stepped up and handled the situation, as I knew they were able.

(this post originally appeared in slightly different form back in 2007)

photo by cell105