I’m going on a vacation next week, so I’ve got leisure time at the forefront of my mind. I’m as busy as the next overwhelmed American worker, so the thought of being away is a mixed blessing.
The easy-going, never-work-harder-than-you-have-to side of me says, “Alright! A week off! You’re a God and you deserve it! Woo hoo!” The considerably more depressing worker-bee part of me thinks about the mountain of emails, phone calls, questions, and stalled work that’ll await my return. I’ll likely need two weeks to catch up on the week’s accumulation of stuff, thereby negating any restorative benefits from the time off. Since I recently took a new job, I haven’t yet accrued enough time off to cover my week away, so I’ll be in the hole for awhile. No days off, no getting sick until I catch up a few months from now.
I used to travel extensively in Europe on business and the topic of time off came up often. To Europeans, time off is a government-guaranteed, sacred right worthy of riots and violent demonstrations if changes are afoot. It would be easier to completely rewrite Social Security, solve the health care crunch, and “win” the war on terror than to cut a European’s vacation time. Most countries start with five weeks and bump to six after an average of five years while getting sick days as a gravy on top.
In the US, middle and upper class workers get an average of two weeks off per year (three weeks if your company pools vacation and sick days as sells it as an unfunded “benefit”). A few companies bump employees to three weeks after 10 years or so. Some factories “helpfully” tell employees when to take time, whether that matches their plans or not. Lower class wage slaves, many involved in heavy labor and strenuous tasks, are just shit-outta-luck. You don’t work, you don’t get paid.
“Have a good time on vacation! Drop us a postcard! Providing we don’t hire an illegal alien while you’re gone, we might even have a job for you when you get back!”
As a rule, American companies are pretty stingy with the time off. They base their business plans on a work ethic of, “We’ll pay you eight hours for 12 hours of work. We know you’d like to have some time off, but golly we’ve already got one person out that week and we can’t spare you. Check back with us next year. Okay?” In the biz-parlance of ROI (return on investment), vacations are an expense with no return. As long as a warm body occupies the chair – preferably a nice, sturdy, lower-paid chair in India – they’re making money. Heaven forbid someone has to forego that fourth yacht they’ve had their eye on.
I happen to be lucky. My new company sees a benefit to the investment in time off. While they may not be as cutting edge as Europeans, they do understand the benefit of taking a break now and then. Accordingly, they’re generous with the time off – at least by American standards. They even offer a paid six-week sabbatical after five years. It’s true that it’s your responsibility to work out coverage while you’re gone, but at least they offer.
Study after study conclude Americans are among the most productive workers on Earth – mostly on the strength of working considerably more hours per week (many of them unpaid if you’re salaried employee). Many studies also show Americans are heavily overworked. The attendant stress causes medical and psychological problems requiring expensive treatment. Expensive treatment that’s now migrating off companies’ balance sheets and into employees’ steadily emptying pockets.
Americans have been at this for so long, they’ve forgotten how to relax. American workers vacation with PCs, Blackberries, and cell phones tethered to them like malevolent moons. The infernal gadgets ring unabated while they’re away. Attending conference calls in between interrupted trips to the beach are not such a rare thing in America. Even without the weighty technology and a secret destination where you can hide from the boss, the office pace usually continues. Since they get so little time off, Americans try to cram the Euro-standard six weeks into one. They plan trips with a precision that would make a smart bomb designer proud. They rush from attraction to attraction with such a fury that a visit to a beachside Denny’s reveals only the dissipating vapor trails of frantic families on the move.
When these folks return to their overstuffed everyday lives, they’re more exhausted than if they’d never left. They immediately dive back into their pile of business junk with all the vigor of a marooned sailor.
Yeah, that’s a productive worker all right.
Many companies have work/life balance programs. They give wonderful classes on identifying the important things in life and balancing them with your work responsibilities. The classes invariably start from the basic premise that you already have adequate time to do everything, you’re just bad at scheduling it. They offer all manner of planners, electronic gizmos, and support groups for parents and those providing care for elders or the sick. But the real value they place on these classes is best demonstrated by when they give them – during lunchtime, after work, or on weekends.
Thanks guys! That was a big help.
As an ex-GE employee I once heard GE’s puzzling lionized CEO, Jack Welch, explain to an employee who complained about routine 12 hour days and 6 day weeks that he was the problem. Sounding like he was talking to a mildly retarded six year old, Jack explained, “You need to work smarter, not harder. Look at me. I’m the CEO of one of the largest businesses on the planet and I still find time to get in a round of golf or two every weekend.”
I thought to myself at the time, “That’s mighty good advice Jack. How about you come down and fill in for me this weekend. Oh, can’t make it? You’re taking your caddy to lunch after your foursome on Saturday?”
“Um, can your caddy cover for me? I haven’t seen my wife and daughter for about three months now. I promise I’ll work smarter so this never happens again sir. Honest.”