With summer in full swing, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the sad reality of U.S. work-life imbalance.
Summertime is perfect for recharging one’s batteries, particularly for families whose children are out of school. But Americans are pummeled into feeling guilty about taking vacations or not working overtime. And this thinking is incredibly destructive to morale, as well as an individual’s ability to make a substantial contribution to society over the long haul. The problem runs deep
in a society that places a high premium on its long-standing puritanical work ethic and getting things done faster than ever.
There’s plenty of eye-opening research on this topic that wouldn’t hurt human resource professionals to get reacquainted with before they head out on their own summer vacation – that is, if they’re even taking one.
Consider Expedia.com’s seventh annual Vacation Deprivation survey, which estimated that 51.2 million Americans will not use all of the time coming to them despite gaining two extra days of paid time off since 2005 (14 versus 12). With an average of three unused vacation days per person, that’s more than 438 million days drained from paid time off pools this year.
The findings were reinforced byHudson’s national survey of more than 2,000U.S.workers, which found that 56% didn’t use all their allotted paid time off, either. The worldwide recruitment service estimated that 30% of those polled used less than half their days off. Moreover, one in five plan to leave town only for long weekends this year.
While 39% of the Expedia.com survey respondents reported feeling better about their job and more productive upon returning from vacation, 19% cancelled or postponed their plans because of work-related responsibilities. Nearly a quarter checked e-mail or voicemail while away from the office versus 16% in 2005.
The popular travel Web site found that paid time off in the U.S. pales in comparison to European nations, with only 14 vacation days earned on average compared with 24 in Great Britain, 26 in Germany, 30 in Spain and 36 in France. It’s no doubt on the minds of researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank, who caution that despite most U.S. firms offering vacations, the lack of government guarantees means one in four private-sector workers do not get paid leave.
Of the 1,800U.S.workers recently polled by Yahoo! HotJobs, 74% said they have two or more weeks of vacation time available each year but 45% didn’t use all of their vacation days last year. Moreover, 36% of the respondents griped that they’re just too busy to take a vacation while 34% couldn’t afford to go away. And for those who take a full-fledged vacation, 70% report being distracted by work-related thoughts during part of the time they’re away.
A seminal 2005 survey of more than 1,000 wage and salaried employees by the Families and Work Institute in 2005, Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much,found that 30% of Americans are chronically overworked, while 54% have felt overwhelmed by how much work was on their plate. “For a significant group of Americans, the way we work today appears to be negatively affecting their health and effectiveness at work,” according to the research.
One problem in the Information Age is that technology has blurred the line that used to separate an individual’s work from his or hr life. The Institute found that ubiquitous electronic devices such as cell phones and personal digital assistants means employees are more accessible than ever to their co-workers, supervisors and customers in the 24/7 economy. Of those polled, 33% said they were in contact with work once a week or more beyond normal work hours.
The trouble, of course, is that Americans value the opportunity to get away. Of more than 1,200 full-time employees polled in MetLife’s Fifth Annual National Survey of Employers and Employees, 55% described vacations as their most important benefit – tied with 401(k) or 403(b) plans for second place behind medical coverage at 82%.
But supervisors aren’t as supportive of their underlings taking paid time off than HR professionals might think, according to a recent report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). For instance, while about 83% of HR pros said managers encouraged annual vacation use, just 63% of employees agreed with this assessment. Another example is that while 31% of employees said managers discouraged vacations longer than a week at a time, just 26% of HR pros concurred.
This snapshot offers a vital lesson for employers across every industry, and if buttoned-up accountants can be pulled away from their calculators long enough to enjoy a vacation, there’s no reason other working stiffs can’t follow their lead. That’s about all I have to say on the subject, so please excuse me while I plan my summer vacation.