The typical American workweek was a little different back at the turn of the 20th century.
That is, until Henry Ford started to rethink the value of leisure.
“It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege,” Ford explained in the 1920s. “We know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six."
Nearly a century later, the American workforce is facing a similar battle in the war between work and play. But this time, it’s a matter of stepping away from the five-day grind that’s fueling a new offensive on worker productivity and happiness.
It seems we have forgotten the very American concept of work hard, play hard. While 97 percent of companies offer paid time off, a majority of Americans are not tapping the full potential of this benefit. Vacation usage has sunk to one of its lowest points in 40 years. Americans are now using four days less than they were in 2000, a sharp drop driven by new work culture norms that bucked a decades-long stable trend line.
For this damning statistic, thank work martyrdom—a powerful and contagious perception spread through a pervasive culture of pressure, silence, and guilt. In work environments where face time is prized over productivity, this martyrdom has gone largely unchecked, left to thrive at the expense of employees.
As part of its wider research on the state of American vacation, Project: Time Off reviewed how work martyr culture is damaging to employees and businesses alike. The investigation discovered a significant cohort of workers who are unhappy and feel they are unable to take a day, driving higher levels of stress at work and at home. They also felt that their company culture discouraged vacation time, and that if they did get away, there was intense pressure to stay connected to the office.
America’s vacation decline is unfolding as smartphone penetration in the U.S. has reached near ubiquitous levels—Americans check their phone 46 times per day. “The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology,” says Nicholas Carr, author and former executive editor at Harvard Business Review. For many, the office is now in our pockets — intensifying the attachment to work, and fostering the belief that 24/7 action is synonymous with success. (If you’re one of the nine out of ten people who experience phantom vibration syndrome, you know where this comes from.) The adoption of technology is also having an impact on our time off: As connectivity has increased in recent years, vacation usage has declined.
But the smartphone isn’t pressing its own touch screen.
In fact, what appears to be at the center of this overwhelmingly negative approach to office life is a lack of communication, empathy, and positive examples. Nearly six in ten (58%) employees report a lack of support from their boss to take time off and, perhaps more surprisingly, more than half (53%) sense a lack of support from their colleagues. A little encouragement would go a long way: 80 percent of employees said if they felt supported and encouraged by their boss, they would be likely to take more time off.
“If you think you are coming off as neutral by not encouraging or discouraging taking vacation, your silence could be interpreted negatively,” explains corporate productivity expert and author Maura Thomas. “While senior leaders may understand intellectually that paid time off improves their employees’ performance, that can get overshadowed by a stronger (and often subconscious) belief that more work equals more success.”
The worst part: Work martyrdom isn’t getting workers anywhere.
Recent data shows that employees who take 10 or fewer days of vacation time are actually less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years than those who took more. Further, there’s no benefit to taking time off when it comes to career advancement: Those who take more time off are equally as likely to have been promoted in the last three years as those who took less or none.
America’s workforce is at a critical crossroads: Carry down the same path to burnout or turn the corner to realize the benefits of time off—from increased happiness to better work performance and stronger relationships to improved health outcomes. It is imperative once again to rethink leisure time for the modern workforce.