Are You Being Bullied Into Not Taking Vacation?
768 million days unused in a single year; how to take yours
If some big guy was cornering you in the hallway at work and stealing your lunch money — say $7 a day — would you put up with it?
Likely not, given that’s $1,750 a year, give or take a few. So why do Americans let themselves get bullied out of taking their vacation days? For someone making $90,000 a year, losing a week’s vacation is an equivalent cost, and never mind the psychic and family disruption.
If you think bullying is too strong a word for what occurs — you earn 20 days of vacation a year, say, but manage to take only 15, and then not during the weeks you’d actually prefer — consider this behavior:
Though your boss calls himself a manager, he makes you arrange coverage for your work while you’re off, pretending that’s no problem.
Given your company is short-staffed to begin with, asking a coworker to cover you makes you feel guilty, and in some cases the person pushes back, and refuses, forcing you to hunt up another victim.
Not so subtle peer pressure bullies you, too. Some coworkers like to brag about the long hours they work and the fact they don’t take vacation, making you feel like a shirker for trying to lead a normal life.
Once you do get away, your boss — and quite possibly your coworkers — continue to send you emails about pressing work matters and, when reminded you’re on vacation, feign ignorance: “Oh, sorry. Could you just write a short memo?”
Doesn’t that sound like bullying? Facing those pressures, Americans “declined” to take 768 million days of vacation in 2018, the most recent count, according to research by the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics and Ipsos. Travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus are certain to reduce the number of days Americans actually spend on vacation this year. Even with rolling days over, the USTA says, 236 million vacation days will expire — basically, pay given back to employers.
Union members, government workers and some others might be exempt from vacation bullying, and good for them. Many office workers are not.
Some management experts like to chalk up unused vacation days to the fabulous American work ethic and our collective desire to get ahead. And they might offer up examples like Mark Cuban, tech investor and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, who says he went for seven years without a breather. Or Bill Gates, who has told interviewers he never took a day off in his 20s, when he was working to get Microsoft off the ground.
Let’s stipulate that you probably aren’t Mark Cuban or Bill Gates, don’t see yourself becoming a billionaire, and are just trying to build a solid career, take care of yourself and your family and would like to take vacations that are actually vacations, uninterrupted by work.
“While senior leaders may understand intellectually that paid time off improves their employees’ performance, that can get overshadowed by a stronger (often subconscious) belief that more work equals more success,” says Maura Thomas, a corporate productivity expert in Austin, Texas.
Europeans are baffled by Americans’ work martyrdom and astonished to learn the U.S. has no mandatory minimum time off for vacations. The European Union has long required businesses to give each employee at least four weeks of paid vacation.
Some countries go further. Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Spain all mandate at least 25 days, the United Kingdom requires 28, and France has a minimum of 30 days. Some European companies automatically turn off a worker’s email when they are on vacation. Imagine that: It’s impossible to bother them.
The United States’ minimum number of vacation days? Zero. Labor laws do not require any vacation time. It is the last industrialized country in the world not to set a minimum number of vacation days.
Statistically, skipping a vacation won’t get you a raise. In fact, using research from Project Time Off, an initiative of the U.S. Travel Association, the Harvard Business Review noted that people who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period. People who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus.
Understanding that you’re being bullied out of taking vacation may help you stand up for yourself, and sadly many U.S. workers are on their own when it comes to getting enough vacation days and then taking them.
First, when you change jobs, don’t make vacation the last thing you ask about; make it an early point of the compensation negotiation. If you’re being recruited away from a job with four weeks’ vacation, try this: “I have four weeks’ vacation at my current job, and I’d expect to improve on that here. What can you offer me?” Then, negotiate as hard on vacation as you do on salary and other perks.
Vacation isn’t only the number of days off, though, so be direct about arranging and choosing days off. “I generally take two weeks off at a time. No problem, right? I see it as a manager’s job to arrange coverage while I’m away, not as part of my job. Do you agree?” Getting things in writing never hurts, even to the point of spelling out in your offer letter that you’re taking off the week of Thanksgiving, if that’s what you’ve agreed upon.
Stuck in a job with too few days off, where you’re expected to arrange coverage and are often told the week you want off is “inconvenient” for your boss? First, I’d refer you to my colleague Wade Tyler Millward’s resource-packed column that recommends, given the uncertainty in the job market, to always be looking for the next opportunity.
Meanwhile, make your best case to your current boss: “I want more vacation days. I’d like a manager to arrange work coverage, not me, because it causes friction with coworkers. And, after all, isn’t that a management function? And I’d like to take time off and not field calls and emails about work. Can you help me with this?”
You might get a yes. Or half a yes. At worst, you’ll know where you stand, in which case, see the link above.