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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blame America’s pitiful vacation policy for burnout

By Erin Lowry Bloomberg Opinion

The U.S. has a pitiful vacation policy: It’s the only country out of 21 of the richest nations in the world to provide no minimum annual leave, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

U.S. workers are generally entitled to 10 public holidays, but even those aren’t truly guaranteed. Private-sector employers are often within their rights to schedule employees to work on holidays such as Thanksgiving, July Fourth and – rather ironically – Labor Day, unless it’s otherwise stipulated in their employment contracts. And even though most U.S. workers are given paid vacation time, close to half report taking less time off than allowed, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

With more Americans feeling burned out, one of the easiest and cheapest things employers could do is require their workers to take more of their earned vacation time. And when they’re off, do a better job of respecting that time – no emails, no calls, no slacking or pinging.

Look at Chatbooks, a photobook service, where vacation time was switched from unlimited to mandatory after its president realized people weren’t actually taking a meaningful amount of time off. Now employees are required to take one continuous week off per quarter. In addition to a set number of vacation days, Amgen has two companywide shutdowns a year (one during the summer and the other during the holiday season), another smart way to force employees to take a break.

Millions of Americans failing to take their full amount of vacation days means that billions of dollars in benefits are being left on the table annually. Forgoing flexible spending account dollars or not contributing enough to get a full employer match on a retirement benefit is often shamed, but the same respect is rarely given toward paid time off. An employee is often seen as having a strong work ethic for eschewing taking time off or working through an illness.

Failing to provide a proper release valve for the pressure that can be caused by work is blatantly damaging to people’s physical and emotional health. Overworking has been tied to increased risk for heart attacks and strokes. Decades of research have linked time off to improved mental and physical health as well as job performance.

A 2009 study found that active leisure pursuits and travel are beneficial for mental health and recovery from a stressful job. Vacation specifically was noted as an effective coping resource in reducing depression. A 2018 study found that even a short vacation over a long weekend could improve well-being up to 45 days after an employee’s return. Paid time off even edged out better retirement and insurance benefits as a preferred perk in the American Psychology Association’s 2021 work and well-being survey.

The concept of workplace burnout may provoke older generations to mutter some variation on “we dealt with it, so you need to” but neither of those provide any amount of salve to the root cause. Burnout syndrome is defined by the World Health Organization as workplace stress that has failed to be successfully managed and can result in feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from a job, or feelings of cynicism – all of which reduce efficacy at work.

In addition, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. The workplace has evolved in such a way that the employment experience for younger generations is starkly different from what boomers or older Gen Xers experienced in their 20s and 30s. The constant accessibility and general assumption across multiple industries that workers should be reachable beyond a traditional 9-to-5 workday has made it difficult to draw boundaries around home life and work life.

The pressure to say yes and be in good standing is even stronger amid worries of a recession, inflation, student loan burdens, an inaccessible housing market and high costs of child care.

With more households where two parents work full time, the responsibilities of handling child care and home duties often falls disproportionately on women. Even those who out-earn their husbands are still more likely to revert to traditional gender norms and handle more of the household labor.

I’m not saying that more mandated vacation days would magically ease the stresses women in particular face, but it could be a helpful start. Even better if required paid time off was separated into “personal days” for say, a doctor’s appointment or taking your child to the dentist, from actual vacation days.

But forcing employees to take time off is pointless if employees aren’t able to truly turn off. As long as managers continue to email their employees or the workplace culture is such that employees feel like they have to respond to Slack messages during paid time off, none of the benefits that come from a true disconnect will materialize.

Have a company policy for how work will be delegated during time away and under what specific situations someone can be emailed or called while on vacation. Perhaps one of the best ways to provide employees with a necessary release valve is to have higher-ups model the behavior and take their own vacation time free of emails and work calls.

Erin Lowry is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance. She is the author of the three-part “Broke Millennial” series.