See You in a Month: Why Americans Need to Get Serious About Vacations

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“See you in a month!”

I was told that by one of our executives as he stopped by HR to complete paperwork for his impending 30-day vacation. My thought was: what would it be like to take an entire month at one time for vacation?

I told him jokingly that I would not know what to do with myself if I had a WHOLE month off. He admonished me and told me that vacation is for rest and relaxation.

Another culture difference

His comment to me was that Americans have the wrong concept of vacation. “You guys take a week here, a few days there, a long weekend.” As he said this, I knew that he was telling the truth. As a matter of fact, he was talking about me.

I have never in my working life taken more than a week at one time. My wife and I would always joke, back when we would go to Europe every year, that we would always promise ourselves that next year we would stay for two weeks. The reason was that as soon as we were beginning to relax, it was time to prepare to go back home.

I have noticed that here in Saudi Arabia, every vacation request is basically for one month. However, the Americans that work here are still the same — they take just one week.

I did it myself when I took a week recently and went back to the States. I had one day travel home, five days of R&R, and another travel day returning (18 hours of flight). I felt like I needed another vacation after I arrived back in Saudi Arabia at midnight and drove home.

The end of day is end of day

When the workday ends, everybody leaves on time with the exception of us (the Americans). We tend to be the last to leave. When I arrive at my desk at 7 am (start time is 8:30), again, our cars are the only ones in the parking lot. My team members (about 20 people) basically come in very close to 8:30, and they leave on time (for the most part) at the end of the day.

Does productivity suffer? There is no discernible difference in productivity. Everybody works extremely hard but they are on top of their business. When lunch times rolls around, they all get up and go out to lunch. I have never seen anyone sit at their desk and eat lunch.

According to Expedia’s Vacation Deprivation Index, some cultures treat the concept of vacations totally different.

They do vacations differently outside the U.S.

Although I am stationed in the Middle East, I feel that the culture here looks at vacation through the eyes of the European. According to this study, Europeans treat vacation as a duty rather than a perk.

Most European workers have between 25 and 30 days of vacation time available to them each year, in addition to state and religious holidays. Workers in France and Spain report taking the full 30 vacation days off, as do their peers in Brazil. Germans take 28 of a possible 30 days off, while British, Norwegian and Swedish workers take all 25 days they’re given.

I asked one of our workers who had just come back from his home country (Turkey) what he did with all this time. His answers was simple: He spent it all with his family. Did you every check your email or call back to office while you were out? Never, he replied — I was on vacation. “I left my No. 2 in charge and he knew what to do. Outside of a huge disaster, he knew that he was not to call.”

I recalled a time when I was in Paris and the apartment that we rented did not have a strong Internet signal. So I woke early one morning, walked over to the Internet cafe, and logged into work to check and respond to email. When I arrived back home, my wife inquired where I was and I told her what I did. The look on her face told me that I was not supposed to do that again.

Would you feel comfortable being away?

There is really no such thing as rollover vacation days into the next year. Yes, it is on the books here that you can carry over five (5), but I checked and the only people that used that option were — you guessed it — the Americans.

Are we afraid of time or is it our jobs we are afraid of? Are our bosses that demanding that they make you feel that you have to stay in touch?

I have even heard it said that some people find vacations stressful. Yes, someone did tell me that. They felt that it was too much stress at work that caused them to toss and turn throughout that week that they were “off.” They could never relax.

Are we afraid of vacations, or time off?

When we do decide to take vacation time and go home, we’re excited and looking forward to relaxing and getting refreshed. On the other hand, we know that vacation could throw us off kilter because our routine has been disrupted.

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In a lot of cases, we simply have not learned how to relax and just let go. We begin the worrying while going to the airport or driving to our destination. It seems our mind goes into warp speed conjuring up every possible stress or scenario. The stress levels for many start on the day we walk out of work and into the bliss of a “relaxed vacation.”

Then there are the technology tentacles, whether it is a smartphone, a tablet, text messaging or email, which makes it extremely hard to disengage completely. All this makes it hard to reach for the on-off switch, because it’s actually more like a dimmer.

“We have it covered”

One of the other differences that I have noticed in Saudi Arabia is that people aren’t tied to mobile technology. The company does not offer devices, and you know what? Everyone collaborates just fine.

During my recent week back in the States, I called back into work and spoke to my assistant. “How are things going, was there anything that I should know?

His answer said it all: “Ron, you are on vacation. Why are you calling here? Go back to vacation; we have it covered.”

As I hung up, I thought, yeah, I like this.

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.