Vacation. Just saying the word causes your body to relax. Go on, try it: “vacation.” Notice how your shoulders drop slightly as you exhale? That’s because the word is inextricably linked with some of your best memories. Whether your bag is ski lodges and fresh powder, cabanas and fresh daiquiris, or grandkids and fresh diapers, vacation is when we get to do the things we dream about while stuck in our fluorescent cubicle dungeons. It’s time away from work, school, dishes, laundry, bills, traffic, committee meetings, and that one goddam smoke detector that beeps every five minutes, always from a different room in your house, mercilessly taunting you as you chase it further and further down a rabbit hole of madness and despair.
Vacations give us a brief respite from reality – a chance to lay down our burdens, unplug our brains, and replenish the energy that gets sucked out of us by all the silly stuff we worry about. Plus, according to a 2013 study conducted by the Scientific Institute of Science, “vacations are really, really good for you.” Taking time off significantly improves your health, your mood, and your workplace productivity, yet Americans somehow managed to leave 429,000,000 PTO days on the table last year. And while Gen Y seems to have all the right pieces in place to buck this trend, a whopping 73% plan to work during their next vacation. If we don’t fix the knuckleheaded notion that stress is a badge of honor, we will become so overworked that nothing ever gets done.
Out of Balance
A lot of lip service gets paid to “work/life balance” in corporate training seminars and early-morning conference sessions (which I routinely skip as a way of proving that I already get it). But, the fact is that the United States is the only wealthy nation in the world without government-mandated minimum paid vacation days. As a result, we take an average of just 13 days off each year – less than two weeks. “Well, we ain’t like them French and I-talians, just sittin’ around sippin’ wine all day,” rebuts the stereotypical 1930s oil baron in my head. Yes, those two lead all nations with 37 and 42 days off, respectively. However, the Brits and the Germans are pretty industrious folks, and they average 28 and 35 days of paid vacation each year. The Germans are even toying with the idea of banning all work email after hours and on weekends.
And here’s the thing that grinds my gears: we are doing it to ourselves! Some managers (17%) consider employees who take all of their PTO to be less dedicated, but the majority seem to understand that vacations not only increase productivity, but also boost staff morale and retention rates. Not to mention cutting down on time lost to stress-related illnesses (accounting for an estimated 70% of doctor visits). So, while nobody wants to be seen as a slacker, it appears that the number one reason we don’t take time off is because we simply “have too much work to do.” But, if we really cared so much about that work, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to ensure that we didn’t do a shitty job of it?
Out of Character
Gen Y is relatively new to the workforce, but it looks like we are already instilling our bad habits in them. More than 52% feel “obligated” to respond to work emails outside of the office (a side effect, no doubt, of their always-connected lifestyle) , while over 40% say that they feel “guilty” when taking any time off. What I find fascinating is that, in this same study, only 18% of Baby Boomers said that they feel guilty about ditching work. We tend to label Gen Y as “entitled,” while this older generation is notoriously chock full o’ workaholics, so this figure initially surprised me. However, I think the answer has as much to do with workplace seniority as social DNA. The Boomers, who have worked hard all of their lives, now feel like they have earned their leisure time; I’d bet dollars to cronuts that the office neophytes feel an immense amount of pressure – both real and imagined – to stay late to impress management.
“Dude! No wi-fi?! But I’ve been going ham on this tax code reform brief all day.”
In a way, this makes perfect sense given what we know about Gen Y. Their closeness to their parents, for example, often gets transferred onto the boss/employee relationship, creating a much deeper-seated need to please. And, because they are impatient to move up the corporate ladder, they may feel like they need to conform to the ubiquitous salt-mine mentality in order to do so. But, this also goes against many of their defining characteristics. For instance, the importance of family can cut the other way, causing them to place a much higher value on time away from their desk. We know that Gen Y also craves adventure, new experiences, and meeting new people as part of their authentic identity creation, so it’s no surprise that vacations appeal to their sense of wanderlust.
Being pulled so violently in two opposite directions, is it any wonder we’re seeing such an epidemic of the quarter-life crises? Older generations gripe that Gen Y doesn’t stay in one job long enough; Gen Y complains that they can’t find the right corporate culture. No doubt this is fueling the decision of so many young people to go the entrepreneur route (sorry, guys, being the boss might mean a more flexible schedule, but definitely not a lighter one). Most people of this generation would rather have more time off than money in their careers; I suspect what they really mean is feeling like they can take a vacation, free from stress and judgment. Wouldn’t we all like to feel that way? So, the next time an employee asks for a few days off, take a deep breath and relax. It’s time we started reaping the physical, mental, and financial benefits of taking a break. When was your last vacation?