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The Disappearing Vacation

June 4, 2015

By Mary Corrado, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

When my Time magazine appeared in my mailbox this past weekend, I saw that the cover article was “Who Killed Summer Vacation?” I was intrigued, but busy; it sat on my kitchen counter as the next few days went by. But the title stayed with me, and I began to wonder; I finally read the article.

What I read did not really surprise me. I remember that when I was a kid our family vacations were always planned and looked forward to.  Now vacations seem to always be last-minute trips when you can get two work schedules to sync and your kids’ summer sports activities aren’t in the way.

And let’s not forget about “staycations,” the idea that you have to use vacation time to take care of all the things you should have taken care of but didn’t because you were working all  those hours. Whoever came up with that one was on to something, I must admit.

And then we have the “vacations” where we are checking emails every 30 minutes, or responding to text messages or taking calls. I was in Florida in February with my son, while ASE happened to be in the midst of trying to close an important business deal. I think I spent half the time I was down there working on that deal. Luckily, my 14-year old son didn’t get too upset with his mother. He had every right to.

There are a grand total of two times I can remember when I have taken a true vacation, i.e., when I did not work. One was when I went to Bora Bora, and the other was when I went on a cruise. Both times it was because I could not connect—not because I didn’t want to connect. And of course I had several days of catch up to do when I got back home. It made me question whether the vacation was really worth what it cost me in catch-up work after it was over.

So how did we get away from the idea that a vacation is important because time away from work produces a re-energized, re-engaged, more productive employee?

Are we living in a society that doesn’t value time away from the job? In some ways we always have been that society; the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not require employers to provide paid vacation or holidays.

But the reality is probably that with the invention of the Internet technology produced the means for employers and employees to stay connected outside of the workplace, and employers took it from there. They developed practices and policies that expanded the workday/workweek from 8/5 to 24/7 (for exempt employees, that is; for non-exempts it is way more complicated, but that is a topic for a different conversation).

It wasn’t just the employer, though; employees were complicit, too. They were afraid to be replaceable and so bought into the new work ethic. (Remember the old radio ads about “Bob,” the do-everything temp worker who scared the daylights out of the employee about to go on vacation? “Don’t worry about a thing while you’re gone . . .  Bob will take care of this, and Bob will take care of that, Bob will do everything!”).  

I really don’t know what the solution is.  I have an acquaintance, also an executive, who tells his reports that when he goes on vacation he will respond only to those emails and texts that are genuine emergencies or truly urgent. He claims that he sticks by that rule and his reports have gotten used to it. I  see how that could help, but it takes an incredible amount of self-discipline to delete all  those other emails—I don’t know many people (including myself) who would do that and stick to it.

My other thought is that I am beginning to understand a little better why some employers are deliberately trying to make their workplaces “fun,” with games and toys and pets and nap rooms, etc. As a Gen Xer myself I’ve never quite gotten used to that idea; but if we are permanently locked into a truly 24/7 workplace, then it begins to make sense that you have to encourage your employees to take their relaxation wherever and whenever they can find it—inside as well as outside of the workplace.

By the way, here are some of the numbers related to our disappearing vacation habits:

  • In 2013 the average number of unused vacations days per employee was 4.9 days.
  • The estimated value of work that employees did for free in 2013 because of unused vacation days was $52.4 billion, or $504 for each employee.
  • Three of five (61%) employed vacationers plan to work during their time off.

We are paying a price for our connectedness. The traditional vacation has gone away. We’ve got to figure out some way to either bring it back or reap the benefits of it without actually bringing it back.

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