Vacation, Paid Leave and the Madness of American Workaholism

summer vacation

As the end of August is upon us, I’ve come to the terrible realization — even though most Europeans take off for all of August, my family never took a summer vacation. This summer I’m guilty of being a bit broke, a lot over-worked and way too tethered to an over-inflated but deeply ingrained and omnipresent need to feel productive. 

LONDON – The hint of an autumn breeze sweeps through my window on an early Sunday morning in August as I work through the annual back-to-school inventory of uniforms and school supplies. My eye graces the “To Do” List I crafted back in late May – still sitting in a corner of my desk, as if beckoning me to “action” it – with the myriad festivals, theater productions and “Top 10 European Budget Holidays” we’d meant to get to with my family before September. And I’m hit – not for the first time in the past three months – with a terrible realization: I never took a summer vacation.

I’m not alone. According to a survey conducted by Skift, a travel intelligence company, last year just 15% of Americans planned to take an actual summer vacation. Those numbers improved slightly in 2015, with figures from the Allianz Travel Insurance Vacation Confidence Index forecasting Americans travelling more this year, but spending less.

Which brings us to economics. Let’s start with the fact that vacations are expensive – the average American vacation cost $8,272, according to Skift – and many people simply can’t afford them. Of the 1,005 Americans polled for that survey, one-third of them said that they wouldn’t take a summer vacation because they can’t afford it. Indeed, Americans who earned less than $25,000 per year were the least likely to take vacation days, with almost half of that income bracket taking no days off last year. As an article on CBS Money Watch put it: “Low-wage professions or part-time jobs…are increasingly pricing workers out of taking time off.”

Now add in America’s paid leave policy. Much like maternity leave, the United States is the only developed nation that doesn’t require businesses to offer any paid leave. Rather, it’s up to employers to decide how many days off to allow their employees. According to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than 30 percent of U.S. small businesses don’t offer their employees paid vacation at all.

For those who do get paid vacation time, the lack of any regulatory framework creates wide variations in what employers are willing to grant. The total number of vacation days is often geared to time served – for example, 10 days after one year of service – as was the case in one of the companies where I used to work. I had to negotiate to take those 10 days when I signed my contract, as if they were something I needed to earn after a year of only taking federal holidays. (Thanks to companies like Netflix, all that may be changing, but one somehow doubts that the pace of change in other companies will rival the speed with which one’s videos arrive at your doorstep.)

Finally, mix in our culture of workaholism. The average American vacation lasted just 4.1 days last year, and most of those were often organised around a weekend to minimize disruption at work. According to Glassdoor’s 2014 Employment Confidence Survey, the average U.S. employee (of those who receive vacation/paid time off) only takes half (51%) of his or her eligible vacation time/paid time off. In addition, when employees do take paid time off, three in five (61%) admit doing some work. Terms like “Vacation Deficit Disorder” and “Work Martyr” are now creeping into the vernacular. (Brilliant. I now have the terminology for a whole new disorder to add to my list of personal dysfunctions.)

The irony is we all know that not taking a break is bad for us. There was that recent article linking longer work hours to increased risk of stroke. We’re constantly reminded you’re actually more productive and more creative if you take a break to “recharge your batteries” – whether during the actual work day itself – or in the form of a vacation. How I envied that CEO who reports spending at least one week a quarter at his house in Maui! (Need to work on first acquiring that house in Maui, but no matter…)

We also know that studies of happiness suggest that the only category of consumption that is positively related to happiness is leisure. Things like…um…vacations. And, of course, you don’t even need to go away to enjoy that sort of “experience-rich” happiness: staycations can also be rewarding.

Me? This summer I’m guilty of all of the above: a bit broke, a lot over-worked and way too tethered to an over-inflated but deeply ingrained and omnipresent need to feel productive. What’s worse: I live in that wonderful place we call Europe, where I benefit from five weeks of paid vacation on top of all the mandatory “bank holidays” (federal holidays) I also accrue. So I’m not surrounded by fellow “work martyrs” who think that it’s normal not to use your vacation days when you can. I’m surrounded by a bunch of normal people who organize their summer workload around their vacations.

They just smile, shake their heads and think I’m…American.

Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at

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  • carla birnberg

    I’ve spent years in other countries and each time I return I think, again, we Americans are a tad bit crazy when it comes to the badge of honor of work.

  • Adela crandell durkee

    I grew up thinking vacation is a necessity. I am one of nine children with a SAH mom (!) and a blue collar dad. We took camping trips. A vacation doesn’t have to be expensive to be revitalizing. For many reasons, I’m sure my dad was happy to get back to work after relaxing.

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