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

19 comments

  • Not surprising at all. People tie too much of their self-worth to their job. I always tell my family/friends that if someone says I was a good accountant/consultant in my eulogy then I failed at life.

  • guinness416

    That's so sad. You also see those who work through summer hours every week.

    The three owners of my firm go on two-week, blackberries-off, no phone contact vacations every year (separately of course!). If they can there's absolutely no reason the little fish can't.

    I had similar surprise to your german experience when I first learned that my office here in Toronto shuts down over Xmas – never happened in New York!

    • So are you considering a transfer to the Toronto office? Or are you suggesting a similar thing be done at the New York office?

  • A lot of Americans have developed a Type-A personality. It is unfortunate, because when we over-work ourselves we can sometimes end up less productive then if we just took the time off to relax and replenish ourselves. Great article, lots of good information!

  • As a recovering lawyer, one of the reasons I didn't take vacations is because the many deadlines I had were so onerous and the penalties for missing one created huge malpractice malpractice. Last year, a group of attorneys I used to work with was slapped with a $30 million malpractice lawsuit for missing a deadline. I ended up changing careers to get my health and free time back.

  • *sigh* Sorry about the typo (I need coffee). I meant to say “malpractice risk.”

  • funnyaboutmoney

    Good post. IMHO, Chad has got something. One of my favorite bosses remarked one time, when he was talking about a period of unemployment after he was laid off a job, that when he was out of work he felt like he was worthless. I think the words he used were “I felt like I was nothing.” His sense of who and what he was — a very fine editor, indeed — was so tied up in what he did that when he wasn't working he didn't feel good about himself.

    And come to think of it, the guy rarely took a vacation. He would link up his vacation hours with three-day weekends to give himself four- and five-day weekends, but he never went away from the office long enough to really unwind.

  • i have heard of this thing in gernany. it is called killer week and they never do any work. What they do is that they head off to some places like islands and fun fairs and stuff and party all night(literally) and get drunk. It seems like the place to be and i have a feeling that this break really does a lot to increase employee performance. We should have one of those in out countries. But i also think that i would not go for a vacation without having some way to stay in touch with my businesses. Workaholics!!

  • I think people need to learn how to relax and when you are on vacation then BE on vacation. I know a girl who still came up to the workplace on her day off because she was 'bored at home'. Really? I love when I get vacation time….I don't take calls or log in to work email…I just enjoy the mental break. The thing is I have things set up so that my class can run smoothly if I am not there (I am a teacher) so when I am sick or have to take a day off I don't worry.

  • The reason I see it is Blame. Hear me out. Every person is responsible for their jobs, but even in team environments, individuals have responsibilities for their daily tasks. What happens if someone leaves for a week or two. The company does not come to a halt. If someone who does not normally do something have to do that task while the other person is gone, there are three issues.

    1) They person doing the work has no motivation to do their best, learn the duties, etc. as it is not “their” task to perform on a regular basis. Plus any screw-ups, they can blame on lack of training.

    2) The person on vacation is held accountable for the work that is being done “in their name” while they are gone on vacation. If the person that is doing their work is unprofessional while they are gone, then they are the one who will not get the fat promotion, get reprimanded, etc.

    3) Management does not harbor teams which enable cross training, and good will to other members of the team. If they do try, they are usually undermined by the people on their team.

    At the end of the day, it is a cycle. Until that cycle and environment are broken, you wont get out of it.

    • As a student who has worked in the Middle East on a co-op as an international salesperson at the mere age of 19, I understand that vacations are needed to stay “fresh” as my whole world was turned upside down in an instant, with little chance to catch my feet (until I fully began ENJOYING my vacations) before I had a total mental breakdown.

      Though, many small business owners lose that feel of “connection”, and also that “edge” when they leave their businesses for more than a couple of days at a time. They ARE the business – they are payroll, sales, accounting (sometimes), maintenance, human resources, etc.

      Case in point: a former business partner of my father that has owned a successful industrial equipment business for many years recently took a 3-day, fully paid, all-inclusive, vendor-funded vacation to a Cuban relaxation resort. One of VERY few vacations he takes other than annual deer-hunting, after his plane was lay-overed another day, he was itching in his pants to get back to the business. The kind of relationships made in business can BECOME your life! Your friends are met through business in small towns (as you regularly deal with the same people, and you have probably ALREADY known them all your life), your respect, character, and personal committment to customers lies on the line, and you become emotionally attached to your “baby” which you have been beside ever since its infancy. Vacations are what you make of them I think, but once I experience more life, maybe my views on that subject will change. . . .

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  • My sister is a doctor. Steve, you know that even she takes vacations. Even though she saves lives and performs surgeries, she is still human and she has a family. She plans ahead. However, she is very, very reluctant to take a sick day off or a personal day. I think, she's never done it, even when she or her son feels suddenly sick.

  • Once when I was stressing about a client engagement, a wise colleague of mine put it all in perspective. She said, “we're not saving lives here.” I can't say I calmed down immediately, but I felt a bit relieved being reminded no one would lose their life if I missed a deadline.

    A company I used to work for encouraged us to stay home if we were sick. But I felt that was more out of concern we'd infect other people with our germs and slow down productivity for everyone. That's understandable. But working from home when you're sick seems to slow down the bodies ability to fight off disease. You should be resting.

    At times, a simple cold would linger for weeks when the worst of it should've been over in 2 or 3 days. Doesn't that slow down productivity as well?

    I love my country, but I think this is an area we can stand to improve in.

  • Once when I was stressing about a client engagement, a wise colleague of mine put it all in perspective. She said, “we're not saving lives here.” I can't say I calmed down immediately, but I felt a bit relieved being reminded no one would lose their life if I missed a deadline.

    A company I used to work for encouraged us to stay home if we were sick. But I felt that was more out of concern we'd infect other people with our germs and slow down productivity for everyone. That's understandable. But working from home when you're sick seems to slow down the bodies ability to fight off disease. You should be resting.

    At times, a simple cold would linger for weeks when the worst of it should've been over in 2 or 3 days. Doesn't that slow down productivity as well?

    I love my country, but I think this is an area we can stand to improve in.

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  • waaaa same here…

  • I remember a colleague that was off work a few weeks. When she came back, she told me she had been on sick leave because of some sort of infection in her digestive system. The doctor had said that one of the reasons the condition developed was because she did not eat regularly (always skipped lunches) etc.

    It was close to lunch time so I said, “OK, will you jon us for lunch then?” She said “I’m sorry, I have too much work. I will maybe grab a sandwich later.”

    She never saw the irony. She was able to be 3 weeks off due to her own stupid eating decisions, and no one missed her. Yet she still had an illusion that she could no take 30 minutes off – at the risk of another sick leave.

    • @kl: Exactly the point, right? It’s sad that we don’t all have an “independent adviser” resting on our shoulder telling us what’s reasonable and what’s ridiculous.