I've just arrived home from a vacation with my husband. We did a road trip on our motorcycles from Edwards, Colo., to Sturgis, S.D., for the annual Bike Week. While there, we met a group of Australian men who targeted the infamous rally in their month-long itinerary, also covering much of California plus Las Vegas. We also met three Italian couples whose three-week plan incorporated Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, and various spots throughout Utah and Colorado.
That got me thinking about how differently the rest of the world approaches vacation compared to the U.S., where it's unheard of to take that much vacation time, let alone all at once. And because I had a lot of time to ponder while putting miles on my Harley, I wondered - what are the statistics?
Of 21 developed countries in a 2013 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the U.S. is the only country that doesn't legally require employers to provide paid vacation. In comparison, the E.U. sets a floor for member countries of 20 days per year, but most countries require more. The statutory minimum annual paid leave policy in Australia and New Zealand is four weeks, and Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off.
Despite the lack of a legal mandate, the reality is that most (about 77%) of U.S. private-sector employers do offer paid vacations, with the average U.S. private-sector worker getting 10 paid vacation days per year. Federal employees accrue vacation ranging from 13 to 26 days annually, and many state and local governments have minimum paid vacation laws.
But many Americans don't take full advantage of their comparatively inadequate vacation benefits. Consider a 2012 Harris Interactive poll conducted for Hotwire.com; it showed that most Americans will leave an average of 9.2 paid vacation days on the table in 2013. And a 2011 Harris study conducted for JetBlue found that 57% of working Americans averaged 11 unused vacation days.
On the other hand, it comes as no surprise that the Society of Human Resource Management advocates that vacation benefits employers, too, in the form of fewer sick days, lower turnover and health care costs, and higher productivity and engagement. Denver-based FullContact feels so strongly about the mutual benefits of vacation that in 2012, it announced a $7,500 bonus for employees who actually take a trip.
It's common sense that taking time to de-stress and recharge supports our mental, emotional, and physical well-being and that getting distance stimulates perspective and creativity. So, there's a clear disconnect between what we know is good for us and what we actually do. We can blame recession-era pressures for Americans' meager vacation habits, but statistics predating this downturn bear out the tendency over time.
So, from a place of appreciating that vacations are actually good for business, what can we do? Here are a few ideas:
* Like Gandhi inspires, be the change you want to see - take all of your vacation.
* Offer additional vacation as a reward for outstanding performance, innovation, solutions to challenges.
* As banks do, stipulate all employees must take their allotted vacation every year.
* If uncomfortable with mandatory policies, use-it-or-lose-it is one approach. Another is to eliminate or limit the ability to cash out vacation days.
* Make the business case for adopting a more liberal vacation policy. It's no coincidence that most of the companies on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list not only have generous perks but also post impressive results.
Vacation is often an underutilized currency to help attract, engage and enhance the productivity of your employees. As Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger aptly said, "Voyage, travel, and change of place impart vigor."
Shani Magosky is an executive coach and flexible workplace consultant with Vitesse Consulting. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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