The American Work Martyr and her 429 million unused vacation days

Growing up in Europe, I always expected to get 25-60 vacation days per year when I’d start adult life. In fact, there are laws that ensure I’d get no less than 20 days a year if I work a full-time job. The thought of not having my four weeks in the summer to hike the Alps or float down a river in the south of France didn’t even cross my mind.

And then I started a full-time job in the US.
The land of the free, home of the brave and the breeding ground for the Work Martyr.

You know. The friend who hasn’t taken a proper vacation in three years (no, Memorial Weekend does not count). The client who calls you on your personal cell on a Saturday because you’re supposed to be always there to help. The co-worker that gives you that look when you say you can’t help with her project because you’re out of town that week. Yes, that one.

Needless to say, I had to adjust my expectations when I started working here. I have a wanderlust that’s never satisfied, a tendency to get claustrophobic in a small town and a family that lives at the other side of the world. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to fit all that in a mere two weeks of vacation per year. I was happy to find out my company is flexible and encourages time off, but unfortunately, most Americans don’t have this luxury.

The US is the only one of the world’s 21 developed countries that does not guarantee her employees paid vacation days. It’s not surprising therefor that the average vacation day for a full-time employee is 8 days, and another 8 holidays that give you a long weekend. That is, if you actually use it.

I stumbled upon a website called Project: Time-Off. They told me that there are 429 million vacation days that go unused every year in the United States. That is collected by 55% of the employees that don’t use all their vacation days.

It’s definitely not because they don’t need it. Nearly three-quarters of workers say they are stressed at work, with one-in-four reporting they are either “very” or “extremely” stressed. Oh dear ‘Merica, I have a little frame-worthy wisdom for ya:
When in doubt, vacation.

But… what about the 1438 unread emails, 721 ToDo items and 38 rescheduled meetings that I need to plow through when I come back to work?
But… won’t my company fall apart when I’m not there?
But… how can I afford to go on vacation?
But… how will I ever get promoted if I’m not always there?
But… Am I not telling my boss  “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THIS JOB” when I request time off?

Such are the obstacles the Work Martyr mentioned as a reason to not use all their vacation time. In some cases, a mere shift in perspective and change in attitude will do the trick. No one is irreplaceable and there a few jobs that will cause life-threatening situations if paused for a week. But in other cases a shift in work culture needs to happen. Employers should take the lead by breaking the silence culture and actually start a conversation with that employee with a high number of vacation days stacked up.

Vacation is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. More than 3 in 4 of the HR managers interviewed for this study would agree. They noticed that employees who take more vacation time are more productive in their jobs, have higher performance and have an increased job satisfaction. And we haven’t even touched on the benefits of vacation on your emotional, relational and physical well-being.

The main solution is to plan. Work is always going to be busy, and it will always be inconvenient for someone that you are out of the office. Submitting your vacation days far in advance is not only a great way to ensure your week(s) of rest, but it also gives you enough time to plan, book and get those early-bird discounts. Whatever reason has held you back to use your vacation time, you cannot sacrifice your well-being for the sake of a job. You work to live, not the other way around.

It’s National Plan for Vacation Day tomorrow. So get your calendar out and plan that vacation, staycation or travel-bucketlist trip. Submit your time request form and book that baby.

You deserve it.

Wanderlust – For the love of travel 
(next up: Do it for the story) 



One Comment

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  1. I love this! I spent ten years in Europe and moved back to the US recently and was SO terrified of starting a huge corporate job for this reason. The good news is – my company gives me 20 vacation days and 6 sick days so I end up having more time off than I ever did in Europe working full time!


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