I might actually take my vacation days this year!

Michelle Gibbon, Stepping Stones

Many people all over the world work very hard to make a living. Some may enter the workforce at an early age, some may work extensive overtime hours, and some may work several jobs just to pay the bills. At what point though, do workers become overworked and are at risk of burning out? 

A recent study found that the US is the most overworked developed nation in the world, and one of the only countries that doesn’t set a maximum length for the work week. According to the International Labour Organization, American employees work 137 more hours than the Japanese, 260 more hours than British workers, and 499 more hours than French employees. Moreover, 86 per cent of males and 67 per cent of females are working over 40 hours in a week. 

One might think that with all these hours put in at the office, they surely must get ample vacation time to unwind. Unfortunately, this may not be the case. Data shows the US workforce also takes the least amount of vacation time, and there is no legal requirement for employers to even offer paid vacation. 

In 2009, statistics showed that the average American adult received approximately 13 vacation days (compared with 26 for the British and 38 for the French). What’s even more shocking is that more than a third of Americans don’t actually take all of the vacation days they are entitled to – most leave an average of 70 per cent of their vacation entitlement unused. 

One of the biggest reasons for Americans forgoing their vacation is their belief that they need more time to complete unfinished work. However, increased workload combined with little to no vacation time can lead to more stress, less productivity at work and a decreased quality of life. Ultimately, this can have serious negative impacts on your physical and mental health, and can cause you to burn out prematurely. 

Job burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. Burnout happens slowly but can cause lower levels of productivity, lower morale and eventually, it can completely derail your career. The potential impact for the employer is higher work place attrition. 

One of the challenges that HR professionals face is making sure that employees take the necessary “time out” to recharge, while also ensuring that their targets and objectives are being met. HR may want to encourage all employees to have strategies to balance work and their personal lives. 

According to the Cayman Islands Employment Law, vacation entitlement runs from a minimum of two weeks for employees with less than four completed years to a minimum of four weeks’ entitlement after 10 completed years of employment. Employers can choose to increase the holiday entitlement they give to their staff, whether to attract talent or increase employee retention/morale. We know that too little vacation time can have a negative impact on an employee’s performance, but what about too much vacation time? 

Netflix, an American provider of on-demand Internet streaming media, has adopted an unlimited employee vacation policy, which follows their “freedom and responsibility culture”. The company focuses on what employees get done and not on how many days or hours they work. Of course, this requires mature and responsible employees who care about producing high-quality work. 

There are several arguments in support of this policy: it treats employees like adults, shows appreciation and trust, reduces costs by not having to track vacation and can be a great recruitment tool. Some argue that it also increases employee productivity. 

While this may be extreme and unrealistic for many companies, it is definitely in line with the growing focus and trend in today’s work era to regain – and maintain – a work life balance. At the very least companies should be open to new ideas about vacation entitlement and explore what may be a win-win situation for their organisation. 

The truth is, the most productive and successful employees are those who utilise their vacation time and return to the office with a renewed sense of drive and determination. However, if you spend your whole vacation on your BlackBerry and laptop answering emails and taking phone calls, you’re missing out on your chance to truly recharge. 

There are several things you can (and should) do to maximise your vacation time. According to Tony Schwartz from Harvard Business Review, you should: 

Take every day of vacation you’re given. 

Take some sort of vacation (even if you stay at home) at least every three months. You should take a couple of shorter mini vacations and at least one lengthier one each year. 

Truly disengage when you go on vacation. If you don’t, you’ll be trading away the value of taking one. If you feel you have to answer emails, set aside one short period to do so, and then disconnect the rest of the time. 

Depending on your occupation, taking long holidays each year may not be completely realistic or feasible, and you may find yourself wanting to remain involved even when you are out of the office so that nothing is missed. However, it is extremely important to take time out and recharge your batteries, and to try to shut off from work as much as you can during your holidays to get the most out of it. 

Your performance at work will benefit from this in the long-term, as well as your personal health. So go on, bon voyage!