It’s a well-known fact American workers endure some of worst employment terms and conditions globally – not least of which is holiday entitlement. But who’s at fault – employers for not offering enough holiday; or staff not taking what’s given to them? And to solve this, should taking holiday be mandatory?
As HRDs will realize, technically Americans don’t have any legal entitlement to holiday at all, which might explain why one-in four Americans still aren’t offered paid vacation time. In fact, with average holiday leave typically around ten days, this lags far behind the likes of Spain (where employers give 39 days per year); Austria (38 days per year), Japan (25 days per year) and even Canada (19 days per year).
All-told USA is now just one of just 13 countries globally that does not guarantee paid time off, and according to the D.C.-based think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, it is the only one of the richest 21 countries in the world that that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.
But it’s clear that vacation entitlement and employee happiness do go hand in hand. Finland, which gives staff 25 days’ statutory leave, plus a further 11 public holidays, has been ranked by the United Nations as the world’s happiest country for the last four years running. So isn’t it about time employers got more serious about holidays?
According to workplace happiness expert, Jenn Lim, the bestselling author of Beyond Happiness, proper holiday entitlement must be elevated as a strategic priority if bosses are to combat unprecedented burnout, what she calls an “unsettling mental health crisis,” and historic resignation rates. But more than this, she suggests HRDs could also start to think about declaring holidays to be mandatory.
TLNT sat down with her to get to the bottom of why companies need to offer more vacation days, and then ensure people take them:
Q: America is renowned for granting the fewest number of days for leave. Are rising burnout and stress levels showing this is a policy that can no longer be allowed to happen?
A: “Burnout and stress can’t be solely addressed by the number of days people get off. But according to Gallup, the global workforce is still reeling from mounting stresses and uncertainty caused by the past two and half years of major personal and world events, changing socio-economic conditions, and broken workplace systems. During this time we have all experienced tremendous stress and burnout, and it’s more important than ever to prioritize wellbeing and mental health. How we worked in the past isn’t working anymore. People are no longer willing to sacrifice their wellbeing for a job.
Q: Do you think employers are generally supportive of offering more holidays? If so, why don’t they offer more days?
A: “It’s difficult to answer. The good news though, is that with 81% of CEOs saying they are prioritizing their own wellbeing over career advancement, there is hope that leaders can lead by example here. Offering more holidays can activate and empower employees to care for their wellbeing – but only if CEOs walk their own talk of taking them off too.
Q: Even when a holiday is given, data shows it’s not always taken. Why do you think this is?
A: “In 2018, 768 million vacation days went unused, totaling around $65.5 billion in lost benefits to employees, according to research from the US Travel Association. Taking holidays can be viewed as a violation of the hustle culture and established social contract. But it’s more important than ever to establish a new social contract with mutually stated boundaries between employee and employer. If employees are not being their healthiest, best self, then they can’t be their healthiest, best self for the organization. When employees feel cared for, they’re 3.2 times more likely to be happy at work and 3.7 times more likely to recommend their company to others, according to LinkedIn research.”
Q: How would mandatory holiday solve this?
A: “By having mandatory holiday, companies are demonstrating that they prioritize employees’ well-being and are trying to protect them from burnout and stress. It’s what we might call ‘nurturing our own greenhouses’. Against this, we’ve seen countless “unlimited PTO” approaches that backfire. This is because employees fear that taking too much time would reflect poorly on them. Cynically, we can also deduce that employers started offering it to avoid paying out unused PTO hours once an employee resigns. What I would say though, is that it’s not enough to simply put out a mandatory holiday policy. All too-often managers are tempted to reach out to team members while they are on vacation still, so the organization must have an embedded culture that truly supports time off by respecting boundaries and actually allowing employees to completely unplug while off from work.”
Q: What would a mandatory holiday look like to you – taking at least a full working week off, in one go, or two weeks?
A: “A recent study found that on the eighth day of a holiday, people experience peak happiness. The same study goes on to say that employees find it more difficult to recover sufficiently from stress and burnout when only taking a short holiday. Regardless if it’s one or two weeks, anything “mandatory” feels forced, whereas a holiday duration determined by employees gives a sense of autonomy and freedom (both key to happiness and well-being).
Q: What about people who prefer to take just single days off at a time (ie, to have lots of long weekends, for example)? Would mandatory holidays penalize them?
A: “Data suggests that 80% of employees want flexibility in their work. Generally, this is thought of in terms of remote vs. in-office. I say it should also be considered when making decisions about time off policies. We lost the feeling of control — one of the key levers to happiness — during the past two and a half years, and now people want to regain it as much as possible. Having a say in how and when they take time off is a part of feeling positive with a sense of control.”
Q: Do the restorative benefits of taking a block of time off outweigh those of just taking the odd day off?
A: “There is a sweet spot of eight days for time off to achieve high levels of happiness; however, it has also been shown that taking small breaks, even throughout your workday, boosts mood and can help to refocus and recharge. So again, it’s about making an intentional effort to take the time to recharge and rest rather than the actual increments of time taken.”
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Q: Does more holidays equal more happiness, or could people be left stressing that work won’t be able to manage without them?
A: “A 2019 Family Vacation Survey showed that 48% of surveyed workers felt guilty when taking time off because their co-workers were left with more work. But when there’s alignment on values and purpose and a shared sense of accountability (where people feel they have each other’s back), there’s less need to stress about whether the work is manageable because everyone is working towards the same goal.”
Q: Would mandatory holidays also have to come with a ‘no contact’ policy – ie, co-workers aren’t allowed to contact them during their time off?
A: “This is where we need to have boundary conversations to create a space where the employer will need to listen with all of the greenhouse conditions (alignment, belonging, accountability and commitment), in place. Giving the employee freedom to create boundaries, such as no contact during time off, means employee themselves also need to psychologically reframe any urges they have to reply to messages or check emails while “relaxing” on the beach without guilt.”
Q: Is there an argument for raising the number of days given, rather than forcing people to take holiday (ie, raising entitlement to 25 days plus bank holidays, like it is in the UK?
A: “The main problem seems to be that US employees aren’t taking time off even when they have it. It’s a bit like leading a horse to water. Giving more days will not necessarily translate to more time off for US employees. Instead of just granting more time off or mandating vacation time, organizations should focus on creating a culture in which employees feel supported and encouraged to take time off. This can be accomplished by prioritizing wellbeing, leaders also taking time off, and balancing workloads while members of the team are out.”
Q: Generally are Americans just bad at taking holidays?
A: “Since we’re a nation built by immigrants, strong work ethics have been embedded into our society. So the other side of the coin is that we’re not “bad” at taking holidays, but we were good at trying to survive. Without these basic physiological elements (as Maslow shared in his hierarchy of psychological needs), it was difficult to even think about things like values, purpose, and self-actualization. The celebration is that these generations before us have succeeded in what they sacrificed for. Now that we have the luxury of more autonomy and freedom, it’s up to us as to whether we’ll honor their struggles by being more mindful that things can and should change. Taking holidays without guilt is just one of the actions towards the greater goal of understanding how we can all nurture our greenhouses for more meaningful, fulfilling lives.”