Give Me a Break!

North Americans don’t fully use their vacation time. In Canada recent Harris/Decima poll conducted for found that 25% of Canadians under-use vacation privileges, leaving 34,000,000 vacation days worth $6 billion on the shelf as they dutifully report to work. Scaling this figure to the USA would equal $60 billion.  Ottawa Citizen – Millions of vacation days go unused

Is this pattern a sign of work engagement? Could it reflect a workforce that is so enamored of its work that employees lack an inclination to leave? Could it reflect a quintessential level of organizational citizenship, such that employees cannot bear to burden their colleagues in their absence? Maybe, but there are other explanations to consider.

A prime consideration is that there is little research indicating that working long hours increases productivity but ample evidence indicating that doing so will make you sick. From this view, not only is vacation time an employee right, it contributes to overall productivity. The evidence suggests that people really need their vacations to remain enthusiastic and healthy at work.

A significant difference between work engagement and workaholism is motivation. Involvement and absorption drive work engagement; fear and anxiety drive workaholism. Anxiety can influence a vacation decision in at least two ways. First, anxious employees may fear that going on vacation will reduce opportunities to impress the boss. They may interpret the organizational culture as favoring people who put in lots of face time, arriving early, staying late, and never taking personal time. They’d love to have a break, but it’s too scary to consider.

On a task level, it’s hard to find closure when working in the information/service economy of North America. Projects linger. Before one completes a project, a few new projects have already begun. At any point, employees face a mountain of incomplete projects. For some, that lack of resolution creates anxiety. It’s just too difficult to leave it all on the desk and close the door for a week or two or so.

Anxiety is an effective motivator, but it’s not constructive. The fresh ideas that drive an information/service economy arise from open minds viewing problems creatively. Fear imposes blinders and keeps thinking on safe, familiar pathways.

Europeans use their vacations more thoroughly. This practice establishes a culture of vacationing. By vacationing, people give permission to their colleagues to do likewise. It also means at certain times of the year, it is nearly impossible to accomplish much because so many people are away from the office. So, you might as well join them.

And even if engagement drives decisions to relinquish vacations, the practice may actually undermine performance in the long run by extinguishing energy and involvement at work. That way lies burnout.

Do you use your vacation time?

Do you find vacations refreshing to your health and your creativity?

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