One day, I was sitting at my desk when a co-worker walked by looking visibly sick.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I’ve had pneumonia for a week now,” he said.
I thought it was strange that he’d come to work, but I never questioned why. Years later, I realized this was a pattern I’d seen over and over again: America’s hesitation to take time off.
The United States is the only advanced economy with no mandated paid vacations or holidays, according to a No-Vacation Nation report published by The Center for Economic Policy and Research. One in four American workers don’t get any paid time off. And those who do don’t always use it. More than half of Americans (55%) did not take all of their paid time off in 2018, according a U.S. Travel Association study.
As someone who has lived and worked outside the U.S., I’ve seen the difference firsthand. In Berlin, people took their vacations. In Singapore, people took their lunch breaks. Americans, meanwhile, support the idea of a work martyr. Where is this pressure coming from and who are we idolizing?
There are a complex set of reasons why we don’t take time off. Two University of California psychology professors, Shoba Sreenivasan and Linda E. Weinberger, wrote in Psychology Today that the main reasons are because Americans fear their employer may not look favorably on them, that no one else can do their job and that they’ll return to a heavier workload. According to a TurnKey survey, 54% feel guilty about taking vacation and 70% continue to check in when on vacation. It’s clear that our national identity is tied up with work.
Some argue it is up to the individual to take or not take their vacation. But the reality is not that simple. I discovered that when I moved to the U.S., I took less time off, too. I succumbed to the pressures of doing what others were doing around me and let social norms dictate my behavior. It is for these reasons that we need to create a national dialogue around well-being.
While many people worry they can’t afford a vacation, time off doesn’t have to be expensive. Personally, I don’t define a vacation as sitting on a beach with a drink in one hand and a book in the other. I define it as disengaging from one part of my life and engaging with another — the part that needs nurturing, and the part that connects with my family, friends, past, present, future and planet. When I’m on vacation, I spend more time with my son. I remind myself why I love my job and what I’m bringing to it. I meet people and learn how others think and act differently than me.
So how do we take time off, considering our hesitations? For one, employers should plan realistic work deliverables with employees’ vacations in mind. Second, employees should cross-train, teaching each other how to do one another’s jobs. Third, leaders should reward the ideas, perspectives and energy that come with taking time off.
We shouldn’t feel ashamed for taking our vacation and we shouldn’t feel guilty for being sick. We should consider time off a personal investment in ourselves.
After all, it’s what leads to a happier and healthier workforce.