Why More Vacation Doesn't Always Mean Happier Workers

By Olga Khazan
vacationbanner.jpg
Reuters

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:

Can You Be Happy Without Vacations? | Infographics

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.

"I do not read e-mail until Monday August 26," one auto-response told me last week.

I was assured by one that they would "read your message when I get back [in late August] and get back to you in due course."

Fortunately, a few were willing to interrupt their breaks in order to fill me in.

Job security: Southern Europeans are currently making less and fearing layoffs amid their ongoing recession, factors that are likely driving down their satisfaction levels.

Meanwhile, Dutch incomes are higher than average for the European Union, and "the crisis which has engulfed the rest of Europe hit The Netherlands fairly late, so the fear of job loss there is less and fairly new," said Shawn Donnelly, an economics professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Hours: The Dutch have incredibly short work schedules, and only about a quarter of women there are employed full-time, despite the government urging that they work more. Who wouldn't love a job that lets you do art projects or get coffee with friends at 2 p.m.?

And even for full-time workers, work-life balance reigns:

"The Dutch have a 9 to 5 mentality much more than other countries have. If it's 5:30, and you aren't at home with your family or on your way there, you're a freak. That means they can detach themselves from the stress more easily than elsewhere," Donnelly said.

As a counter-example, see the Japanese: They get 10 guaranteed days off, but their long hours and high-stress jobs might be what's bringing down job satisfaction. Some surveys also show that the Japanese and Italians are more likely to leave their state-mandated vacation days unused.

The "minimum vacation" factor: This is probably the strongest argument for establishing a country-wide norm for time off. Vacation laws tend to work like minimum wages, Lowell Turner, a professor of international labor at Cornell University, explained. Saying you have to pay workers at least $7.25 an hour doesn't mean everyone in the country makes $7.25 -- it just means you can't pay them less. But from that point, companies compete for workers by piling on more money.

The same theory holds for vacation time in countries that have statutory minimums (and their strong labor unions further help drive up the number of days off). Donnelly said he gets almost nine weeks -- much more than the Dutch minimum.

And it's worth remembering that in countries without a time-off mandate, workers often do get time off at their employer's discretion. According to the CEPR study, about 90 percent of full-time and high-wage American workers get vacation time and paid holidays. But that figure is only about 50 percent for the lowest-earning workers. It's likely that if Randstad had polled only the bottom 25 percent of wage-earners, the satisfaction numbers would look completely different.

Subjective measurements: A more banal, but still necessary explanation: "satisfaction" is a subjective, non-scientific term, and what counts as "satisfied" varies widely between cultures.

"When someone in the U.S. says, 'I'm happy with my job,' they're comparing it to people around them,'" said Turner, an American who has lived in Britain, Germany, and France. "They're comparing it to other people who also don't get [guaranteed] vacations."

What's more, Randstad conducted the survey four times over the course of the year, and in several of the survey's other iterations, Nordic countries rivaled or even surpassed the Netherlands in satisfaction, which shows that the metric can fluctuate even within a short timeframe.

It's not the vacation, it's the pre-vacation Amazon shopping: It's also possible that time away from work simply doesn't color our job perceptions that much: A 2001 study in the Journal of Socio-economics found that a job's "interestingness" level and the employee's relationship with management were two of the most important factors in determining work satisfaction.

Other research has shown that vacation-induced euphoria drops rapidly after we get back, and we quickly return to our baselines.

And although I personally cannot fathom how making checklists and last-minute Target runs might be in any way pleasant, apparently much of our vacation-induced happiness actually occurs while we're preparing for the trip, not on it. So in cases where workers do experience a vacation-induced satisfaction bump, perhaps it's just that having more days off a year creates an opportunity for more frequent trip-planning.

"If you go to Europe, everyone over there is planning their next vacation," Turner said, they just won't admit to being thrilled about it. "The French, if you ask them if they're happy, they say they're not. But they're out there savoring life in a way that we're not."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/why-more-vacation-doesnt-always-mean-happier-workers/278638/