At first, I thought it was simply because there are so few days off per year, but then how do you explain the huge number of vacation days that people leave on the table?
To explore issues regarding work-life balance in the American workplace, I interviewed Scott Petoff of VacationCounts. In this interview, he also shares some tips and tricks on how to take more days off.
What are the most surprising facts and figures about vacations and work-life balance in the U.S.?
I tend to focus on the sad but true facts about what some call “vacation deprivation”. People I talk to in Europe always express shock by the lack of vacation here and how it can go unused.
There is no U.S. federal regulation regarding paid time off. That means as an employee, you are not entitled to vacations or holidays. Of course most employers offer vacation days as a benefit to be competitive, but there are no minimums.
- Average paid vacation days after 1 year of service for full-time employees = 10 (compare this with European countries which legally guarantee at least 20 days).
- Percentage of all workers with access to paid holidays and vacations = 77% (in other words, almost one in four American workers receive zero paid vacation during the year).
- It can take 5 years of service to go from 10 days to 15 vacation days (changing jobs may mean you have to start over with 10 days again).
- Paid holidays and vacation have not changed much in 20 years (with no legislation passed, there is little incentive for lower paying, part-time and small-business jobs to be generous).
- 500 million vacation days could have been lost by workers in America (Expedia study which extrapolates based on simple math to make a shocking point).
Click to Tweet this: “Almost 1 in 4 Americans receive 0 paid vacation during the year”
Why do American workers not use their few existing vacation days? Do you think that giving people more time off will help?
This is a difficult question to answer, but in my opinion it comes down to the career-centric American culture. I believe people in the U.S. derive more satisfaction from achievement at work than do people in most other Western countries. The culture of consumerism rewards people that work hard, move up the ladder and earn more money. Of course this attitude towards work doesn’t apply to everyone. However, the first question you’re likely to get from someone you’ve just met is: “What do you do for a living?”
This feeling of being too important to go on vacation can lead to employees failing to take every vacation day before the year is up. Some people say they are saving them up, but for what? When there are too many responsibilities and deadlines at the office, people feel stressed and overworked. A vacation is the perfect solution!
Perhaps if a company increased paid time off (PTO), workers would take a greater number of total vacation days each year. It would be an interesting experiment, but I feel it is even more important for national vacation legislation to be enacted now.
What are the standard days off that everyone should have in the U.S.?
After working at more than 10 companies across four states over the course of my career, I’ve seen a variety of vacation policies.
The “standard days” are the major holidays: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day (4th of July), Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. That makes for 10 federally-recognized public holidays.
However, each U.S. state is free to add or subtract dates on their “official” list. For people that do not work in government, the list of holidays can vary with 8-10 on average.
Many companies offer what are called “Floating Holidays”, which may be taken for religious observances. From the data I’ve seen, MLK Day and Columbus Day are very uncommon but Good Friday, Christmas Eve, and the day after Thanksgiving are often on the official company floating holidays list.
Any creative hacks to maximize days off to travel?
- Turn every three-day holiday weekend (such as Memorial Day or Labor Day which are always on a Monday) into a four- or five-day long weekend vacation with the addition of Friday and/or Tuesday. You’ll avoid the busy travel dates by not leaving or coming back on the most popular (and expensive) days for traveling.
- See if you can take vacation days in half-day increments. A mini-vacation may be just what you need to travel to a nearby tourist, historic or natural attraction on a weekday.
- When you need an extra vacation day or two beyond your annual accrual for a big trip, ask your manager if you can work a compressed workweek. By putting in a full-time effort in four instead of five days, you can earn an additional day off.
- Ask to “float” more official company holidays. That means going into the office on a holiday when you weren’t planning on traveling anyway and making up that day as a floating vacation day to be used later.
There are so many ways to enjoy time off from work, only one of which is travel. If you cannot afford to fly overseas, here are some ideas to “always be on vacation” closer to home:
- Visit the nearest big city and become a tourist. Get a city pass, attend a festival or go on a guided city walking tour.
- Camp, hike and take guided walks in a regional, state or national park.
- Visit an ethnic neighborhood.
What are some good ways to negotiate more days off?
I’ve come to learn in my own career that with any job situation, if you don’t ask you don’t get. There are ways to increase your vacation time if you make it your goal.
I feel it is critical that you become a top-performing employee who receives above average appraisals and does not abuse the time off and sick policies at work. Making yourself indispensable to your boss means that they may be willing to be flexible to retain you. Also ask around and talk to other staff that have taken extra time off to get their insider advice.
My general advice is to prepare a project plan before negotiating for your time off proposal. Pull together the facts about what you want, how it will affect the company and what you will do to make up for it. Common sense suggests that you are more likely to get additional paid or unpaid leave if it is not during a busy season, there is a colleague that can pick up the slack and you are willing to check in occasionally with the office while traveling (an unfortunate reality).
The other suggestion is to ask if they can trade off money for time. So instead of getting a raise or bonus, propose an extra vacation day or two instead. Make it clear to your manager that you value time off over money and you may be rewarded.
Scott blogs about how to take more vacation time off at VacationCounts. By having a healthy work-life balance and maximizing time-off benefits at work, every day can be a vacation day. Follow VacationCounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
Despite the culture and policies that are not exactly conducive to international travel, some Americans manage to make it work. Check out my interviews with these travelers:
- Andrew works full time as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and has been to 46 countries.
- 6 years into their relationship, Frank and Nicole have visited 30 countries together even though they both have full-time jobs.
Images: 1. Modified from the work of David Berkowitz (CC BY 2.0 License); 2&3. Scott Petoff.