It’s June, and the joys of 80-degree days are here: iced coffees, T-shirts and summer dresses, watching the last of the snow piles melt. Even guys in Birkenstocks and white socks can’t spoil the mood. The long-anticipated vacation is just days away — or is it?
Turns out the only thing more depressing than how little vacation the average American gets is how little vacation the average American takes.
The typical private sector worker gets 10 days. Two stinking weeks of paid time off. That puts us at the bottom of the international pack, with much of Western Europe in the four- to six-week range. But here’s the kicker: Nearly three-quarters of Americans leave some of those days on the patio table, and 15 percent of us take none of the vacation we’re entitled to. That’s more than 150 million unused vacation days every year.
Isn’t Massachusetts looking for a new state slogan? How about Masochists Are Us!
It gets worse. Roughly 1 in 4 of us, including more than half of minimum-wage staff and almost half of service workers, get no paid vacation at all. If you were wondering, we are the only advanced nation that doesn’t mandate paid time away for its people. (Hello, Pakistan and Sierra Leone!) But at least we’re consistent. We’re also the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for new mothers.
But since the bill filed periodically by a Florida congressman mandating a week of paid vacation across the country had about as much chance of passing as Tom Brady on Week One, let’s leave Congress out of the mix as we work to diagnose the problem and prescribe a cure.
Some employees hoard vacation to cash out come quitting time. Several years back, a retiring Massport employee elevated that to an art form, walking away with a nearly $300,000 lump sum for unused vacation and sick time.
I’d bet most people aren’t that interested in gaming the system. The reasons our everyday fellow workaholics give for vacation aversion are simple: guilt (we’re hurting our co-workers), fear (we’re hurting our careers), and poverty (we can’t afford a trip).
But by my reckoning, there’s no good reason not to take every day your employer is willing to give you. (Unless the reason is that you’re booked on a cruise, otherwise known as a floating prison, according to reliable research.) Trust me, relaxation, mental health breaks, and work-life balance are not overrated. According to an advocacy group, Take Back Your Time, 9 of 10 Americans say their happiest times were on vacation.
My fellow American employees, Pogo was talking about us — we are the enemy. So, sadly, it’s up to enlightened employers to lead the way.
The Tiens Group of China did just that in May, booking 140 hotels in Paris as part of a four-day, $15 million vacation spree for 6,400 workers. Very kind. But before you plan your move to Beijing, would you really want to spend your time off with your podmates?
Another solution, embraced by firms like Netflix and Richard Branson’s Virgin, is giving unlimited vacation to employees. They actually trust their staff to be responsible. And the firms benefit, too — no set leave time means no expensive accrued time-off payouts when you leave. (Travel industry research has estimated that private companies in the United States have $224 billion tied up in unused time.)
The problem is, an unlimited vacation policy does not always inspire workers to use their days. In fact, it can create even more of a sense of obligation — if they trust me this much, I better show up. In response, Evernote in California is taking it one step further by offering a perk on top of a perk. Take at least a week off, they tell workers, and get a $1,000 bonus.
If that still doesn’t work, only one thing is left: forcing employees to just go away. That’s right. Have vacation time? You’re required to take it. Since 2012, HubSpot in Cambridge has mandated that its employees take at least two weeks off per year. And why not? Studies show workers come back from time off happier and more productive.
Let’s step back from all of this for a minute and ponder an important question or four: What is wrong with us? Why is all this necessary? Why would we prefer being tethered to our desks eating last night’s American chop suey out of a cracked Tupperware container over sitting on a deck on the Cape, sipping a drink, popping in fried clam after fried clam? Putting aside the five-hour wait to get over the bridge, isn’t that where you really want to be?
Paul Tsongas got it when he famously cited his friend’s counsel, “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’ ” My advice: Don’t wait that long — channel the late senator’s spirit now while you’re upright and can still do something about it.
BY THE NUMBERS
$65.6 billion — Size of paid time-off liabilities accrued last year by US employers, who must pay out the rollover days when employees leave their companies.
$52.4 billion — Value of paid time-off benefits forfeited last year by US employees who can’t roll over their vacation days.
Source: The US Travel Association’s Project: Time Off
Jim Braude is host of Greater Boston on WGBH and co-host of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.