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Americans Terrible at Taking Vacation Time

In many countries across the world, abundant vacation time is a point of pride. Workers in Europe, for example, revel in their five weeks (or more), and many couldn't imagine living with anything less.

Here in the U.S., well, things are a bit different. It's no secret that we lag far behind most countries when it comes to paid time off. Heck, we don't even have a mandatory minimum number of vacation days. Even in Japan, which is often stereotyped as a nation of workaholics, workers are guaranteed a certain amount of time off. The U.S. has no such government-mandated policy.

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Even worse, a new study shows that many Americans aren't taking what meager vacation time they have. A poll by Reuters/Ipsos shows that only 57 percent of Americans take all of their allotted vacation time, which ranks the U.S. toward the bottom of the poll. The study doesn't show how many vacation days people take, so it's possible people are taking most of what they get. But it's generally accepted that Americans, who receive around 14 days annually, leave three or four days on the table.

The French, who generally receive the most vacation time (30 days plus holidays), also take the most: 87 percent use all of their vacation days. In Argentina, Britain, Hungary, Spain, Saudi Arabia, and Germany, 75 percent or more take their full allotment.

Not only do Americans skimp on the time off, but the rise of smartphones, laptops, and Wi-Fi has spawned a new trend: tethered vacations. I'd wager that nearly everyone reading this entry (including me) has taken a work call or email while out of the office, or vacationed with someone who did. Every time my parents travel, my mother snaps a photo of my father on the phone with work. It's a bit of a running family joke, but can vacation really be vacation if you're constantly worried about the office and checking in to make sure everything is OK?

So here's my question: Why don't more Americans take their vacation time?

Well, the economy sure doesn't help. Unemployment is stubbornly high, and many workers may feel vulnerable to a layoff if they appear to be slacking.

Of course, the mere idea of a vacation as "slacking" may be closer to the actual reason. Read the questions from this 2008 Careerbuilder Q&A about vacation time, and a theme emerges:

  • How do I shake the guilt that comes with taking a vacation?
  • I'm burned-out but my boss says now is not a good time for me to be out of the office. What should I do?
  • I want to make myself accessible while I'm away, but only for emergencies. What should I do?

If you ask me, this is just sad. If we're truly a nation of dignified, hard workers, why on earth should we feel guilty about taking time off? I know: we shouldn't. We earn the time we get, and we should take it, even if it's just to sit in the yard or take the family to a museum.

Readers, do you take most of your vacation time? If not, why not? Do you think this country would benefit from a stronger work/life balance?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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