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Taking a Vacation May Actually Save Your Career

Workaholism is hurting the American economy


This time of year, many Europeans are looking forward to their month-long holiday in August. Workers in America, however, can already feel the strangle of a collared shirt around their neck in 90-degree heat as we continue trying to be productive. As the Cadillac ad that ran nonstop during Super Bowl season hammered home, the European style is to take time off while the American style is to keep the nose to the grindstone. Cadillac may be proud of how hard Americans work and disdainful of the European way of life, but we may be hurting, not helping, ourselves with our out-of-control ethic.

Europeans don’t just look forward to more time off than us in the summer, but all year round. Some of this American work ethic is elective, but some of it is certainly imposed on us. The United States is the only advanced country that doesn't guarantee that its citizens will get paid vacation time and holidays. European countries, meanwhile, ensure at least 20 days of paid vacation, with some going as high as 30 days, and most rich countries make sure workers get at least six paid holidays. That leaves nearly a quarter of Americans without any access to paid vacation time. 

The prospects are equally bleak for workers looking to take time off for other reasons. If they or their family members get sick, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to take a paid day off to deal with it, and about 40 percent can’t. Twenty-two other developed countries ensure paid sick leave. When a couple adopts a child or has a newborn, they’re only guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid time off, and that’s if they qualify—40 percent don’t—unlike virtually every other country that guarantees paid leave.

We’re even one of just 16 countries that doesn’t make sure that workers get at least some time off during the seven-day week. That weekend most of us enjoy come Friday night is not backed up by American policy, but instead is a voluntary employer perk.

But it’s not just policy fueling our overwork; it’s also cultural. Professionals, managers, and executives with a smartphone spend 72 hours a week (including the weekend) checking work e-mail. It’s become a nonstop world, especially for professional workers. But all employers are offering fewer vacation days and sick days than they used to. And those who are lucky enough to get paid vacation days aren’t using them. A Glassdoor survey found that three-quarters of American employees don't use all of their vacation time. The average person takes just half of what she’s allotted. Fifteen percent don't take any time whatsoever. A different study estimated that we leave about three vacation days unused each year. Even 60 percent of those who took time off in the Glassdoor survey still worked on vacation, many of them because they felt like they couldn’t truly log off.

At the same time, we’re working harder and for longer days. The 40-hour workweek is mostly a thing of the past. Ninety-four percent of professional workers put in 50 or more hours, and nearly half work 65 or above. All workers have managed to cut down on our time on the job by 112 hours over the last 40 years, but we’re far behind other countries: The French cut down by 491 hours, the Dutch by 425, and Canadians by 215 in the same time period. Workers in Ireland and the Netherlands are also working less. We’re also increasing our productivity, getting more done in the time we spend at work. It went up by nearly 25 percent between 2000 and 2012.

This overwork shows up in our sleep. Out of five developed peers, four other countries sleep more than us. That has again worsened over the years. In 1942, more than 80 percent of Americans slept seven hours a night or more. Today, 40 percent sleep six hours or less. A lack of sleep makes us poorer workers: People who sleep less than seven hours a night have a much harder time concentrating and getting work done.

Perhaps it would be worth all of this if working longer and harder produced better results, fueled the economy, and created wealth for everyone. But that’s not likely. Taking some time off actually improves a worker’s productivity at work. A study from Ernst & Young found that every ten hours of vacation time taken by an employee boosted her year-end performance rating by 8 percent and lowered turnover. Former NASA scientists found that people who take vacations experience an 82 percent increase in job performance upon their return, with longer vacations making more of an impact than short ones. Putting in too many hours, on the other hand, does the opposite. More than 60 hours a week will create a small productivity flurry at first, but it’ll start to decline again after three or four weeks. Other studies have found the same initial burst followed, but a worse decline.

But what is it all for? Americans are working harder but not seeing the fruits of their labor. Workers, white collar and blue collar alike, have seen a decade go by without much of an increase in wages despite their increasing productivity. The infamous one percent have taken home 47 percent of total income growth between 1976 and 2007. Turns out, being “crazy, driven, hard-working believers,” in Cadillac’s words, isn’t working out so well for the 99 percent.

Image via Shutterstock.

Correction: This piece originally stated that workers with smartphones spent 72 hours a week on their off time checking work e-mail. In fact, the 72 hours include working hours, and the workers are just professionals, managers, and executives. We regret the error.