"The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a minimum annual leave statute," says de Graaf. The European Union requires a minimum of four weeks of vacation in all of the bloc's 27 member countries. Many exceed that and mandate five or six. When workers were asked in the Reuters/Ipsos survey whether they would use all their vacation days, France topped the list, with 89 percent of respondents taking every day.
One American who has worked for an international company in Basel, Switzerland, for 13 years describes an office culture that values down time.
"We get minimally four to five weeks of vacation every year," she says, "and we're encouraged to use it. … I already have three vacations scheduled for this year and will certainly fit one more in before the year's up."
Working hard, burning out
By some views, vacation resistance is part and parcel of a work ethic — still held by many older workers — that historically has made the American economy strong. Japan, another hard-working and affluent country, tops the list in the world: Only 33 percent of employees take all their days, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found.
But other people see a social cost in the never-slow-down attitude. "When people don't take time away from the workplace to reenergize their batteries and recharge, it's neither good for the individual or the business," says Sanicola of World at Work.
It may ultimately lead to employee burnout, absenteeism and health or safety issues, he believes: "Vacation time is essential for work-life effectiveness and overall health and wellness."
And with the economy no longer in the fearsome depths of 2008 and 2009, some studies show that Americans are starting to reclaim their time off. A 2009 survey by Right Management found that about 65 percent of Americans weren't taking their allotted days. In 2010, the figure had fallen to 46 percent. Says Douglas J. Matthews, president of Right Management: "It may be that our latest finding reflects a somewhat healthier workplace mind-set."
Diane Cadrain is a Connecticut-based attorney and freelance journalist who writes frequently on employment issues.
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