Q: The South Korean government has a problem: Employees are working too much. The average government worker takes only six of 23 vacation days a year. How important is time off? Does productivity suffer or rise when workers forego time off? Should those who opt not to take it be forced to? And does this problem exist in the States?
About this time every year, my daydreams of long, sunny afternoons paddling on a clear lake grow more intense. At twilight I can almost hear the loon calls, and on some misty April morning a trace of balsam on the breeze evokes Adirondack dawns. My vacation is still several months away, but mentally I'm almost there!
People who don't know me very well express surprise at my long-preferred vacation style: a few weeks in the Adirondacks on my own, with kayak and camera and a great box of books --- heaven! "You must be bored very quickly," say those passers-by in my life, but in fact, my days in the woods are quite full.
Sitting very still beside a backwoods pond waiting for a loon to pass by with her chicks on her back, or a bear cub to peek out from the brush, or an osprey to snare an unwitting fish for dinner -- this takes a great deal of time! I did give up camping out years ago, but the wonderful folks from whom I rent the same cabin every year know that I love the solitude and serenity of the great outdoors.
Vacation time is absolutely essential to my ability to sustain a very full professional life. I work very hard 50 weeks a year so that I can have those necessary 2 weeks for recharging, reflecting, reclaiming those parts of myself that sometimes get lost in the long winter season.
Like the part that actually prefers to get up at 8 a.m., not 6. Or the part that is perfectly happy sitting on a deck doing nothing more difficult than trying to keep that pesky spider out of my wine glass. While I am deeply preoccupied with those very tough choices I only face on vacation -- Lake Placid or Saranac today? read a book or take a nap at 2 p.m.? -- my brain and body are storing up fresh reserves for my inevitable return to the demanding frenzy of work.
The United States trails the rest of the world in recognizing the important value of vacation time for sustaining excellence in the workforce. A 2007 study by Mercer, the human resources consulting firm, found that the average worker in the U.S. gets 15 paid vacation days and 10 paid holidays per year, a meager sum compared to European nations like France (30 paid vacation, 10 holidays), Finland (30 paid vacation, 10 holidays), Germany (24 + 10) and Austria (25 + 13). Because the United States has no federal law requiring paid leave, many workers have no paid time off at all, which seems like a terrible mistake for any industry.
As an employer, I have come to understand the essential role that vacation time plays in sustaining a productive and energetic workforce. Time off is not idle time. Whether the co-worker takes the family to the beach or Disney World or prefers to stay home working in the garage, the whole point of the change in routine is to provide some opportunity for balance, rest and renewal of the energy that sparks creativity and the ability to sustain top performance.
The old image of the heroic hard worker never leaving the desk, never taking a day off, recalls an ill-considered time of sweatshops and early heart attacks. Corporations and nations that want premium economic performance from their workforce need to understand this simple new math: time off = better work = more productivity = profitability.
A good vacation creates the memories of beauty and serenity that provide small mental breaks even in the busiest of times. Even now, with a very full agenda ahead today, I hear the loons calling from Long Lake. My Adirondack reverie reminds me that vacation is coming!
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