Americans take less vacation than the rest of the world. That's partly because the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require that employers offer paid time off for vacations, sick days, or holidays.
There are state and local rules that require time off in some markets, but there's no national standard. For most Americans, whether they get vacation time comes down to an agreement between the worker and their employer.
Because of that, only about three-quarters of U.S. workers (73%) actually have vacation time as of March 2016, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That report shows that white-collar workers are more likely to have vacation time, while service industry workers are dramatically less likely to.
How much vacation is normal?
Americans don't seem to value vacation as much as the rest of the world, according to data from Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). While that study dates back to 2013, there have been no major shifts in U.S. vacation policies in the past few years.
The numbers for American workers also mirror the more-current BLS data. European Union workers get at least 20 paid vacation days with some countries requiring more. Canadian and Japanese workers don't do quite as well, but their 10 mandated vacation days look pretty good compared to the zero days U.S. employers have to offer.
"The sum of the average paid vacation and paid holidays provided to U.S. workers in the private sector -- 16 in total -- would not meet even the minimum required by law in 19 other rich countries," according to the CEPR.
As you might imagine, lower-paid American workers are hit the hardest. Only 49% of the bottom fourth of workers, when it comes to wages, get any vacation at all compared to 90% of high wage workers. In addition, only about one-third (35%) of part-time workers get paid vacations compared to 91% of full-time employees.
How much vacation do you need?
Americans are self-defeating when it comes to vacation. A 2016 Bankrate study showed that more than 50% of U.S. workers give up at least some of their paid vacation days each year. On top of that, an earlier report in 2014 showed that 42% of Americans claimed they don't take vacation time at all.
That's potentially bad for workers and their employers. Taking time off -- whether it be a short break or an extended vacation -- can help you function better at work.
"There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources," Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University told Entrepreneur. "When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You're able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks."
And while there's no set amount of vacation people need to take, it's very clear that workers do need time off in order to continually function at their best.
The brain is "like a muscle. You can strengthen it or deplete it," Gabriel said in the Entrepreneur interview. "If you let this muscle recharge and replenish, you'll feel better mentally and see improvements in your performance."
You need time off
If you work for an employer that does not offer time off, it may be time to reconsider your job. That sounds cavalier for lower-wage workers, but with unemployment at near-record lows, in many cases even those at the bottom of the chain have the ability to find a new position at a company that values their health.
Working to your breaking point may seem like something you should do to get ahead. That's a notion that is even well-entrenched in the start-up and entrepreneurial world.
In reality, at some point -- and scientists don't agree on what that point is -- hard work becomes counter-productive. You don't want to work just to work. Time off can make your time on more effective and that's something employers should consider when it comes time to set vacation policies.
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