You don’t need a vacation

I’m writing this column on New Year’s Day, a holiday, I know, but really, who takes time off anymore? And who wants to anyway?

We are not a people that vacations. Right Management, a consulting firm, estimates that 69 percent of all American workers don’t take all of the vacation to which they’re entitled. Hotwire, the travel site, separately figures that, by the end of the year, workers have on average 12 days of unused paid vacation.

At first it seems irrational. Why not take a break from the daily grind? Some point to the recent period of unpleasantness — that would be the Great Recession — and think employees are still feeling skittish about their job security. Rather than use vacation days, they’d just as soon bank them for the next round of layoffs. Others worry that employees believe vacation is a kind of a test to see who really cares about the firm. Sure, go ahead and take those days off. But when it comes time for raises and promotions, we’ll remember those who burned the midnight oil while others were sleeping until noon.


Then add this complication: For many workers, there’s no way to escape the office anymore. We’re connected by computer and smartphone and even when vacationing, there’s an expectation that you’ll at least spend a couple of hours each morning checking in. It’s either that or face the prospect of 1,000 e-mails in your inbox upon your return.

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All of this leaves human resources professionals aghast. Vacations are necessary, they argue, a way for employees to recharge and refresh. They’re good for the company, too, helping to boost employee productivity. So the HR folks recommend, for example, that companies limit the amount of vacation time that can roll over. Make your employees take time off, they say. Everyone will be better off.

In fact, there’s surprisingly little hard data that show vacations really do much to improve productivity. Workers in the United States generally take fewer days off than do those from other nations, yet we rank among the highest in the world in productivity per hour worked, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (higher than vacation-loving places such as France). Nor is there much strong evidence that vacations improve workers’ health; much of it is anecdotal stuff easily countered by a marathon viewing of National Lampoon’s “Vacation’’ movies.

Get past the issues about the Great Recession and employee insecurity, and I think there are two reasons we don’t take time off. First, we want to feel important. Second, vacations aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Many of us work to live but the ideal is that we live to work. We all need to get paid, of course, but we also want our efforts during the day to have meaning, both for ourselves and for the larger world. Taking long stretches of time off belies that. After all, if we can leave the office and things still go smoothly without us, how necessary are we really?


Then too, vacations are often a waste. Parents dread the arrival of summer vacation and scramble to fill up their children’s days with enriching activities. That’s because they know that long periods of idleness do nobody any good. Why do we forget that lesson when it comes to us as adults?

Sure, if your idea of a vacation is that special trip to explore the Italian vineyards, then I’m all for it (although it’s also a safe bet that the transition back to work will be a tough one). But rather than require employees take off weeks at a time, employers might better push for “micro-vacations” that make it easier for workers to balance work and the rest of their lives: liberal parental-leave policies, limits to marathon hours, and company-wide practices such as four-day work weeks during summertime. Then, too, follow the lead of high-tech companies and build in break time during the day. And if you catch an employee goofing off with a game of solitaire? View it as a head-clearing interlude rather than an abuse of company equipment.

In any event, enough. This column’s over. The new year’s started. Back to work.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.