Why More Vacation Doesn't Always Mean Happier Workers

The Netherlands mandates a middling amount of time off -- but its workers are some of the most satisfied in the world. Here's why.

When American writer Russell Shorto first moved to the Netherlands, he at first experienced some sticker-shock: 52 percent of his income, he learned, would be taken away in taxes. A few months later, though, some of that money reappeared in an unexpected way:

In late May of last year an unexpected $4,265 arrived in my account: vakantiegeld. Vacation money. This money materializes in the bank accounts of virtually everyone in the country just before the summer holidays; you get from your employer an amount totaling 8 percent of your annual salary, which is meant to cover plane tickets, surfing lessons, tapas: vacations. And we aren't talking about a mere "paid vacation" -- this is on top of the salary you continue to receive during the weeks you're off skydiving or snorkeling. And by law every employer is required to give a minimum of four weeks' vacation.

Even the unemployed, Shorto points out, receive vacation money from the government -- after all, being jobless is depressing enough without enduring the horror of a life without all-inclusive cruises.

Indeed, vacations are sacred all across Europe. It's August, so France has practically shut down as people visit their summer homes, wander the beaches, or just "enjoy interesting conversation." This year, President François Hollande, attempting to set a more austere tone, urged the country's ministers to keep their summer breaks short -- well, short for France: two weeks.

It's worth noting that Hollande's holiday crackdown might make for a grumpier government once the policymakers return. A recent article in the New Republic argued that between buying a new car, renovating your house, or taking a vacation, that trip to Tahiti is the best bet for boosting happiness levels.

We adapt to having nicer stuff, the authors write, but vacations provide a lasting contentment dividend, propping up morale even weeks after you're back in the office:

Novel experiences ... provide the basis for valuable memories that endure, and that can help to define the texture of a life. It is tempting to think that a two-week trip to Paris is pretty short, but if the vacation is terrific it will have a lifelong effect. In your mind, you will keep coming back to it.

And it's around this time -- during the hot, sleepy, endless August -- that bloggers like me (and previously, my colleague Jordan Weissmann) take note of the fact that the U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations on earth to not mandate paid vacation time -- or even paid holidays off, for that matter.

Here's the sad chart that shows how we stack up, via the Center for Economics and Policy Research:

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 1.25.29 PM.png

So if vacations make us happier, do countries with more generous vacation policies have more satisfied workers?

Not really, actually. According to vacation data from CEPR and the human resources company Mercer, as well as a worker satisfaction survey from Randstad, a workplace research firm that interviewed 400 workers between the ages of 18 and 65 in each of 27 countries, there's very little correlation between mandatory vacation time and a country's overall worker satisfaction. Roll over the dots here to see each country's score:

The Netherlands had the happiest workers on the Randstad survey, with 80 percent saying they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied." Meanwhile, they have fewer guaranteed vacation days than the Chinese, just over half of whom are happy with their jobs. Meanwhile, Italians get the equivalent of an entire month off each year, but only 57 percent are satisfied.

The big outlier, though, is the U.S.: with no guaranteed vacation days, 73 percent of us are satisfied with our jobs, about on par with the Swiss and Norwegians.

And for an even broader picture, we could go with the OECD life satisfaction rankings, roughly a measure of how happy people are across developed nations. (Granted, this takes into account all of the country's citizens, not just the employed ones.) By that metric, the Greek and Turks, who have several guaranteed weeks off a year, are some of the most unhappy people in the group. Meanwhile, Americans are humming along, relentlessly punching the clock while scoring in happiness just below the Australians, who chill for 28 days a year [click on this chart to enlarge it]:

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 6.12.50 PM.png

And in a poll in 2005, the OECD found that Mexicans were actually the most likely to be satisfied with their jobs, even though they get a relatively modest 23 days off of combined vacation and holiday time.

So why are the world's workaholics seemingly so content? And why is a country with such middling vacation requirements, the Netherlands, also the happiest country?

The EU's vacation policies also meant it was not easy to find the answer.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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