No-Vacation Nation: 'As Long as There's WiFi ... I Am on the Clock'

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On Monday, I posted this graph of federal paid annual leave policies across advanced economies in the OECD (we are number zero). Lacking a national vacation policy is one thing. But just about every company in America offers paid time off, and the vast majority of Americans don't use all of their time. Are we afraid to leave work, or do we misunderstand how important a break can be?

I asked you to tell me about your vacation philosophy and experience. Here are the best answers about why Americans don't take -- or can't take -- more vacation time. Keep writing!

"I'm a W-2 contractor. No vacation. I haven't had a vacation away from home since 2009."

I'm definitely doing it wrong, but I don't get to do it right. I'm a W-2 contractor, and get a straight hourly wage. I'm supposed to get time and a half for overtime, but I get no benefits, no sick days, and no vacation. If I take a day off, I don't get paid. I haven't had a vacation away from home since 2009. On top of that, I have two full-time jobs. One is my day job as a programmer. The other involves my efforts to finish my first novel for publication. My next "vacation" is more likely to involve me sending out resumes and going out for job interviews than to involve anything resembling relaxation. - Matthew Graybosch

"My identity is wrapped up in my work and I'm happier when I work."

I have too much vacation and don't take it. And when I do I end up working or doing the equivalent of work anyway.  Cause I don't have anything else to do. Or extra money to go anywhere and do anything. And "staycations" are a joke. I just end up sleeping, watching TV and...working. Cause I just get bored.  It also takes as much time and money and effort to get anywhere as it does to actually be there and enjoy it so what's the point? Plus I'd have to go by myself anyway and while I'm okay with that, most things aren't really amenable to it.  I dunno, my identity is wrapped up in my work and I'm happier when I work. If I'm not working then I get restless and I can think about the things I don't like about my life.  It may not be healthy but it is what it is at this point. -- starfishncoffeeelephantsnflower

THE AWFUL EQUATION: VACATION NOW = MORE WORK LATER

The way I have always been presented it in my experience from working from retail, white collar security, to hospital work is that vacations and break are bad, and people who take them should feel bad. It's this subtle insinuation that if you take a break or a vacation then you are causing other people hardship, they'll have to work more, take on a greater load, come in on their days off. We are trained to work until we drop, and if we take vacations we are chastised for making everyone else suffer for it.  Then there is the number of people staffed, in every job we have always been critically understaffed so that if someone did want to take a vacation it would severely hamper the work done by the remaining people there, they would be unable to fill the position.  Then there is the matter of pay, any time taken could cost you money, and even a little money lost is a huge dent to many. Then there's the fear that if you take vacations then you look like you aren't serious about your job.  It's not like we want to work to death, we're just trained to fear it, and constantly reminded of how bad we are if we don't want to do it. -- trebaolofarabia

"Each time I went on a vacation, I was given notice of being laid off."

During the past 15 years, I've worked for three different companies. Each time I went on a vacation and came back, I was given notice of being laid off. I don't take vacations anymore! - pbradley

"I guess I should have been French"

Americans are unhealthily obsessed with working. we all need to take a step back and realize our lives are more than just our jobs. It is rather pathetic and extremely shallow. I guess I should have been French of German. I'd much rather have their lifestyle. - Shocktroop

"I hate the vacation policies where I work."

I hate the vacation policies where I work. I started with 10 vacation days a year. We close during the holidays and are required to take a certain number of vacation days during that time. I joined the company in June and only accrued 5 days before the Christmas holiday, which required that we take 8 days of vacation. So at the end of the year I had a deficit of (5 - 8 =) 3 days going into the next year. That year I was required to take another 6 days off at Christmas, so I was left with (10 earn days - 3 deficit days - 6 required holidays) = 1 vacation day for the entire year. As far as what works for me - I'm about to take a 2 week vacation, once my second set of twins arrive (probably labor day weekend). I've never taken a 2 week vacation before, but saving up that many days has been exhausting and I wouldn't do it again. -- cheato321

WHY VACATIONS CAN BE MORE STRESSFUL THAN WORK

My job is stressful, obnoxiously so. Incessant deadlines, relentless project timelines, needless political intrigues, etc. The additional stress of trying to prepare for a vacation, and then the stress of catching up when the vacation is over, makes it hard for me to enjoy myself. I took an off-the-grid vacation last year and returned to find several artificial mini-crises had developed while I was gone, all of which were pinned by my insane boss on my "failure to prepare" before I left.

This kind of thing doesn't happen every time I take a day off, but it has happened enough that I get almost overwhelming anxiety the last evening/morning of my return. Returning from time off just reminds me how frustrating my job is, and if anything my productivity goes down after a long break or even just a couple days.

This job is the only one I've had where I feel this way, and a huge part of it is because of my aforementioned boss. I love taking a break and I know I need it, but it does not make my job any easier or less stressful. -- jeffJ1

"If you don't like how much vacation time you received, get a different job!"

Free market = the government doesn't set vacation policy, you do! If you don't like how much vacation time you received get a different job! I enjoy 10 paid holidays, 15 paid vacation days, and 4 personal/sick days a year because I was willing to stand up for myself and insist on it during the interview process for my current job. They offered 10 days and I asked for and received the 15 days. -- Keith_L

"As long as there's WiFi and a working mobile tower, I am on the clock."

With my company, even if I am sick or on vacations, I have my office with me in the form of my laptop and mobile phone. I've gotten out of bed with 104F fever to speak with clients. I've left my mother's hospital bedside to return a call about a shipment. I've been in a kayak on a mountain lake and had a text of 'OMG CALL ME NOW!' I'd love to have REAL time off, but as long as there's WiFi and a working mobile tower, my boss says I am on the clock.

"The American model of "their time" vs "my time" exists because workers are given so little 'my time'"

I currently work overseas where I received 17 vacation days, 8 set holidays, 2 floating holidays (days I can choose based on a long list of holidays that we do not get days off for), and 10 days a year where we work 4 or 5 hour days (i.e. on a day before a holiday). This is combined with 16 sick days a year.

As an American, I initially found this excessive - but now the idea of returning to the US model seems unpleasant. Not only do I truly value vacation time as a period to recharge (whether going on an 'active' vacation or a more passive one), I also have learned how to value my sick days. In the US, I worked at a hospital where our sick days and vacation days were in the same pool. Which resulted in people avoiding sick days at all costs (and thus far less productive work days during flu season). What it most often resulted in would be workers showing up when "under the weather" for a few days, then get really sick - and still avoid taking off time. This could easily drag for 1-2 weeks as well as threaten to make other workers sick (not even to talk about the ethics of coming to a hospital when ill).

By learning how to use sick time (i.e. taking off 3-4 days for legit illnesses, not just the day or two when I feel horrible, as well as taking off single days when I just don't feel well), I have really learned how to relate to and appreciate time off in regards to being a better employee. I no longer see sick days as something that I need because I'm 'dying' - but because by taking off 1-2 days, the remaining 3-4 days that I'm in the office, I'm a better for the office. Similarly, all of my family lives in the US, and so instead of taking off many short holidays a year, I benefit from one long extended visit to the US. By planning that visit so that I have the best time with my family, and the most relaxing overseas travel possible - I am better for the company by having my situation with my family happy, well rested, and less stressed.

In regards to professional athletes, I have heard (in particularly I think Shaq) about the notion of having surgery done during the athletic season versus the off-season as a case of doing something on "their time" (the team's) versus "my time" (the player's). If Shaq needed surgery on his knee, the notion of spending the off season in rehab appeared to cut into his vacation time and so he wanted to do it during the season, rather than having surgery in a way that would best benefit his team. I think that the American work model of "their time" vs "my time" does happen more, because workers are given so little "my time". If all my time off is in one pool, then why give my employer a day because I have the sniffles (but maybe the flu)? I believe that this mentality translates overall to using less time off and not seeing the mutual value of time off to the company as well as the worker. -- JBowmn 

"From where I sit, the 1% also has the monopoly on vacation time too."

I'm a self-employed contractor for the USPS. I just came back from my summer vacation. It consisted of an 8 hour drive to the town where my daughter is attending college (public state college), a day looking for housing for her, and an 8 hour drive back home. Today, I return to my six day work week. From where I sit, the 1% also has the monopoly on vacation time too. -- From where I sit, the 1% also has the monopoly on vacation time too. -- ruskfamily


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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