Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Is it me, or do Americans hold no value for vacation?

What is wrong with more than half of my fellow Americans?

According to a study performed by Harris Interactive, About 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, and most of them left an average of 11 days on the table - or nearly 70 percent of their allotted time off.”

Seriously? Are we so narcissistic that we believe we’re too important to take time off? Do we honestly think that our employers would fall apart without us there?

At my previous employer, when someone responsible for something important (let's call her "Jane") was out sick or on vacation, my boss would say, “If Jane dropped dead tomorrow, who would I call?”  Unfortunately, that saying turned out to be a little too close for comfort one day, as the head of one of our banking units was involved in a horrific accident and passed away. She’d been with the company for over 20 years and was my go-to gal for many questions. Everyone relied on her. Her loss was a huge blow to the organization, but it turned out that my boss was right. Despite the devastating loss, business somehow kept on moving forward.

Remember this story - it's all going to tie together, I swear.

My nickname at the bank was "OB" - short for Office B*tch. If all of the admin staff decided to be sick, go on vacation, couldn’t make it through the snow, or needed a mental health day, I was there to pick up the slack. At one time or another, I’d had pretty much every administrative job there (we grew from 5 people to about 35 in my 7 years there), so I did it all. I trained every single administrative person who began working there after me. You know what? When I gave notice at my old job earlier this year, the world kept turning. Somehow things still got done. The bank didn't implode (depending on who you ask). I’d like to believe that they built a shrine to my awesomeness in my old cube… but somehow, I doubt it.

The one thing that I’ve had difficulty adjusting to with my new job has been the time off – or should I say, the lack thereof. I know that banking is an industry whose benefits typically include more holidays and vacation time, so perhaps it’s unfair to compare the medical field to banking. Now I get awesome medical benefits and mediocre time off. At my previous employer, I received 20 vacation days (available on the first of the year) along with 11 paid holidays. Here, I accrue time at the blinding speed of .538 days per pay period (26 pays in a year, which equals 14 days) and have 7 paid holidays. I lost 10 days off by taking this job. 

Granted, I should probably also mention that when I first started at my old job, I only received 15 vacation days, and at the time we were owned by a different bank, so we only had 7 paid holidays (the same I have now). Once I’ve been here for 5 years, my time accrued will go up.
And yes, once I factor in the time that I’m saving with my decreased commute, getting 2 hours of driving time back every day, I’m actually gaining nearly 20 full days (that’s 24 hour days, not 8 hour work days) of my life back each year. I guess looking at it that way, I shouldn’t be complaining.

My whole reason for making this post (okay, I'm whining a little)– is that I’ve been trying to go to Australia for several years now. One thing or another has always held this trip up, and I am determined to make it next year, come hell or high water. I knew when I took this job that I would have fewer vacation days, however, I wasn’t expecting a trip like this to be a problem given plenty of advance notice and the willingness to take unpaid time.

Let’s just say that I’m very glad that I asked about it early. Yesterday I sent an email to my supervisors at the Mothership, copying my boss here. I said that I wanted to take 3 weeks off, possibly with one of them unpaid (if I hadn’t accrued enough vacation time). Their reply was that they had to look into it, and that no administrative staff member had ever asked for three weeks off and that it would have to be discussed with senior management. I was totally taken aback! The only thing I read in the handbook regarding time off was that you were unable to take 5 days of leave in a row until you’d been working for 6 months. By then, I will have been with the group for a little over a year. Yes, a three week vacation is a long time, but administrative staff members have gone out on maternity leave, haven’t they? If I (God forbid) got pregnant now, I would be having a baby at about the same time I’m requesting the time off.

My local boss replied to my email that he was perfectly fine with me taking off (I even offered to let them select which weeks I’d be gone). They said that they’d take his input to the higher ups.

So what exactly is the problem? Do they think I'm lazy because I want to take vacation time instead of leaving it to roll over unused? Do they think that my job is far too important for me to leave it for so long? Do they think that because they would never consider taking a trip like this, that no one else is entitled to do so? Do they think that only physicians should be able to take a three week trip, while lowly administrative types toil away in front of our computer screens and dream about an exotic getaway?

Or maybe the horror is that I would *gasp* take a week off unpaid. I'm thinking that this is in all likelihood half of the problem.

 This story confirms some of my beliefs about American attitudes

Why do Americans work so hard? In the eyes of Rita Gorby, a visiting Irishwoman, it’s all about “the almighty dollar.”
Even some Americans agreed. “We’re a very materialistic society,” says Brad Johnston, a salesman for a tech start-up. “We find happiness in wealth.”

Sure, it’s nice to have money. According to a study cited by this Time Article, Money can buy happiness:

According to a new study from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, it sort of does — up to about $75,000 a year. The lower a person's annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don't report any greater degree of happiness.
Maybe making $75,000 a year buys happiness. It sure makes living much more comfortable! So I suppose that according to this study, money can buy happiness.

However – you can’t take it with you. 

I went through a phase where I bought an insane number of Coach purses and even some expensive jewelry. After a few years, I realized that none of those things made me happy. When I looked at my life, the happiest I'd been was when I was with friends and family who I enjoyed spending time with. My dad wasn't big on traveling and we didn't have much money, but we enjoyed many camping trips together. I enjoyed the adventures of traveling in France with my aunt Nancy and uncle Darryl. I'll never forget the day I got lost in Paris and wandered the streets for hours looking for my hotel.Or the day that Jay and I were engaged, tractor accident and all. Hanging out with Jay and Colleen at Greens Pub in Kinvara with the locals we met at the  Dunguaire Castle Banquet. Nights out in Key West and Orlando with my girlfriends at Tu Tu Tango and the Cricketer's Arm. Friends that Jay and I met in the Dominican Republic, smoking at a hookah lounge. The hike up Thunderbird Mountain to watch the Lunar Eclipse in Arizona. Ghost hunting on Rose Island in Rhode Island, where we had to take a ferry several miles across a foggy harbor into the Narragansett Bay.

These are the things that I'll remember for a lifetime.

I recently read Josh Gates's book, Destination Truth: Memoirs of a Monster Hunter, and it really made me want to get out and travel more. It's not just the destination - it's the journey. Sometimes the journey takes you on a train meandering through the French countryside and sometimes you end up colliding with a tractor. What you walk away with is an experience uniquely yours. I was horrified when I read that only 10% of Americans have passports. While Googling for this blog post, I found that the number is now at an all-time high - one third of all Americans now have passports. This number is still astonishingly low to me when compared to most other countries in the world. Sure, the U.S. is big... but, it's the U.S. Do me a favor, fellow Americans - go SEE other countries. You may think that we're the center of the universe here, but trust me, we're not. Get your passport and go see the world. Provided, of course, that your employer actually allows you to take your vacation.

According to an article referenced earlier in my post:

The accounting firm Ernst & Young has found that people are actually more productive if they get more time off. That made sense to a lot of the people we talked to. “When you work all day you have family issues, household issues,” says Audrey Harrington, an administrative assistant. “You’re running around all day. We’re busier than we ever have been before. If people have more time to pay their bills, do their food shopping, take their kids to sporting events, they will be more productive.”
Americans put in more hours than any other workers in the industrialized world, even more than the hard-working Japanese, who get around 25 days of paid vacation. 

According to most sources that I've read, Germans get six weeks of paid time off.

Germany is the eighth most productive country in the OECD (as defined by gross domestic product divided by the number of workers), while Greece is the 24th. But taking time off also doesn't make that much of difference in the overall picture. Employees usually end up paying for their time off because employers factor the cost of that lost productivity into a pay package. (That's one reason why Europeans earn less than Americans on average per year, even if the pay per hour is the same.) Then there's the growing body of research showing that time off can actually help workers get more done. A 2009 study in Harvard Business Review, for example, showed that requiring business consultants to take time off every week actually boosted their productivity.

I wish that the U.S. would get with the times and put some paid time off rules in place. I think that we would all be happier and healthier for it. I know that I would.

So the moral of the story is... all you have in life are your experiences. No one can take those away from you. Do what makes you happy, whether it's taking vacations or spending time with friends. You can't replace time with your family or friends with money or objects. 

I'm hoping that the higher-ups at work are travel lovers who will understand. If not, I suppose that I'll have to take whatever time they allow me for my trip, but I sure as hell won't be happy about it.

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