A Philosopher's Blog

Work & Vacation

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2017

Most Americans do not use their vacation days, despite the fact that they tend to get less than their European counterparts. A variety of plausible reasons have been advanced for this, most of which reveal interesting facts about working in the United States.

As would be expected, fear is a major factor. Even when a worker is guaranteed paid vacation time as part of their compensation for work, many workers are afraid that using this vacation time will harm them. One worry is that by using this time, they will show that they are not needed or are inferior to workers that do not take as much (or any) time and hence will be passed up for advancement or even fired. On this view, vacation days are a trap—while they are offered and the worker has earned them, to use them all would sabotage or end the person’s employment. This is not to say that all or even many employers intentionally set a vacation day trap—in fact, many employers seem to have to take special effort to get their employees to use their vacation days. However, this fear is real and does indicate a problem with working in America.

Another fear that keeps workers from using all their days is the fear that they will fall behind in their work, thus requiring them to work extra hard before or after their vacation. On this view, there is little point in taking a vacation if one will just need to do the missed work and do it in less time than if one simply stayed at work. The practical challenge here is working ways for employees to vacation without getting behind (or thinking they will get behind). After all, if an employee is needed at a business, then their absence will mean that things that need to get done will not get done. This can be addressed in various ways, such as sharing workloads or hiring temporary workers. However, an employee can then be afraid that the business will simply fire them in favor of permanently sharing the workload or by replacing them with a series of lower paid temporary workers.

Interestingly enough, workers often decline to use all their vacation days because of pride. The idea is that by not using their vacation time, a person can create the impression that they are too busy and too important to take time off from work. In this case, the worker is not afraid that they will be fired, they are worried that they will lose status and damage their reputation. This is not to say that being busy is always a status symbol—there is, of course, also status attached to being so well off that one can be idle. This fits nicely into Hobbes’ view of human motivation: everything we do, we do for gain or glory. As such, if not taking vacation time increases one’s glory (status and reputation), then people will do that.

On the one hand, people who do work hard (and effectively) do deserve a positive reputation for these efforts and earn a relevant status. On the other hand, the idea that reputation and status are dependent on not using all one’s vacation time can clearly be damaging to a person. Humans do, after all, need to relax and recover. This view also, one might argue, puts too much value on the work aspect of a person’s life at the expense of their full humanity. Then again, for the working class in America, to be is to work (for the greater enrichment of the rich).

Workers who do not get paid vacations tend to not use all (or any) of their vacation days for the obvious reason that their vacations are unpaid. Since a vacation tends to cost money, workers without paid vacations can take a double hit if they take a vacation: they are getting no income while spending money. Since people do need time off from work, there have been some attempts to require that workers get paid vacation time. As would be imagined, this proposal tends to be resisted by businesses. In part it is because they do not like being told what they must do and in part it is because of concerns over costs. While moral arguments about how people should be treated tend to fail, there is some hope that practical arguments about improved productivity and other benefits could succeed. However, as workers have less and less power in the United States (in part because workers have been deluded into embracing ideologies and policies contrary to their own interests), it seems less and less likely that paid vacation time will increase or be offered to more workers.

Some workers also do not use all their vacation days for vacation because they need to use them for other purposes, such as sick days. It is not uncommon for working mothers to save their vacation days to use for when they need to take care of the kids. It is also not uncommon for workers to use their vacation days for sick days, when they need to be at home for a service visit, when they need to go to the doctors or for other similar things. If it is believed that vacation time is something that people need, then forcing workers to use up their vacation time for such things would seem to be wrong. The obvious solution, which is used by some businesses, is to offer such things as personal days, sick leave, and parental leave. While elite employers offer elite employees such benefits, they tend to be less available to workers of lower social and economic classes. So, for example, Sheryl Sandberg gets excellent benefits, while the typical worker does not. This is, of course, a matter of values and not just economic ones. That is, while there is the matter of the bottom line, there is also the question of how people should be treated. Unfortunately, the rigid and punitive class system in the United States ensures that the well-off are treated well, while the little people face a much different sort of life.


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  1. CoffeeTime said, on August 13, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    European here. When I was teaching, I of course had huge numbers of free vacation days. However, after that I’m sure that over the past 20 years, I have taken less than half of my designated 20-25 vacation days each year. I usually take a few days around Christmas, and a few around long weekends. Especially since the era of cheap flights, it’s possible to do a long-weekend trip without all the hassle of a packed holiday for a solid week or two.

    In the developed world, at least, we all – or almost all – get two days off every week. That’s 104 free days each year, for a start, to “relax and recover”. I’m not aware of any solid research that indicates what need humans have for further vacations, what further vacations are needed, whether 10 or 20 or 30 days are needed, and if so by whom, what the consequences of not fulfilling that need are, and for which cases.

    People who felt they actually needed vacation days would take them.

    My anecdotal observation is that some people make a habit each year of planning a go-away vacation long in advance, and some don’t. Those who do make plans take those vacation days. Many of those who don’t make plans end up not taking them, largely because at any given moment, organising the vacation is more trouble than it’s worth.

    Having no paid vacation days is a matter peculiar to the US, of which I have no experience.

    Hobbes said we do things for gain or glory? I wonder what he thought of habit and self-actualisation?

  2. TJB said, on August 13, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    The article Mike links to says that more than half of employees do not use *all* of their vacation days. I frankly don’t think that much can be read into this statistic.

    • WTP said, on August 14, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      If you are a person with a degree of common sense, you will try keep a few vacation days in reserve for unforeseen circumstances that may crop up such as the sudden illness of a friend or distant relative, funerals, or especially to bank against possible layoffs on the horizon. I’ve generally kept a week or so in reserve. Many people, especially people who came here from India or China or Europe carry vacation days over from one year to the next so that they can take three-four-five-whatever weeks off in the following year to allow for a week’s worth of travel that is needed to get to such distant locations. Don’t suppose Mike considered that, but let me know if I’m wrong. I ain’t reading these mindless screeds no more, just dealing with the consequences is enough.

  3. DH said, on August 14, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Statistics notwithstanding, I’d like to offer an anecdote presenting the opposite point of view. Over the past four years, I had a student who was extremely talented, extremely driven, extremely competitive – mostly with himself. His work definitely showed it – his portfolio was always impressive. Coming back from school vacations, I’d ask him what he did over break – and his answer was always in the form of new pieces, new techniques he had learned, new software mastered.

    The summer before his senior year, he received a coveted internship at a major studio.

    He came back from his internship very introspective, full of self-doubt and questions about his life and his approach to his work.

    “They make you go home at 5:00” he said. “They play ping-pong at lunch, and you get in trouble if you come in on the weekends. I don’t know how to do that!”

    The studios where we send students are big and small high-tech production environments, and almost without question, place work-life balance at the top of the list of what they are all about. It is no doubt that these studios have their pick of graduating seniors from around the world – they completely embrace the idea of competition in a free market by offering a product (their work environment) for which many people compete.

    This is the nature of the free market – whether you are competing for market-share for your product or competing for the best employees you can get, you have to offer an excellent product at a fair price with good customer service. This is directed at your last point, where you seem to think that “we” (the government?) need to do something about this “rigid and punitive class system” situation.

    Here’s another anecdote. My wife works as a staff member of a small college. She doesn’t make a lot of money, in fact, she is an hourly wage-earner, but that was not really at the top of her list when she was seeking employment. She works with people she likes, in an environment she enjoys, and is fulfilled by her work. Today (Monday), she took the day off, and is doing chores around the house with me. She took the day off because this is the end of their fiscal year, and she had accumulated more vacation hours than she used, and was told she had to take them.

    Again, her reason for not taking them was not fear of losing her job or returning to a pile of work, nor was it some ambivalent attitude about time off on the part of her employer. It had nothing to do with our rigid and punitive class system, either. It was because she enjoys her job, it gives a measure of meaning to her life – she believes that she is part of a team and being able to make a contribution offers her a level of satisfaction that is worth more to her than more money or more time off.

    Regarding the “rigid and punitive class system” in this country – where do you think this comes from? There is a constant mantra coming from the left telling me how envious I need to be of the wealthy, of the 1%, of how they are taking money from me and from my children, of how they “get away” with all kinds of stuff. I never come up with this crap on my own – like my wife, I derive my fulfillment from other sources. Maybe it’s the buy-in of this “unfairness” and class-envy that is behind Americans not taking all their vacation time – or maybe it’s just that they enjoy going to work.

  4. WTP said, on August 14, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Again, her reason for not taking them was not fear of losing her job or returning to a pile of work, nor was it some ambivalent attitude about time off on the part of her employer. It had nothing to do with our rigid and punitive class system, either. It was because she enjoys her job, it gives a measure of meaning to her life – she believes that she is part of a team and being able to make a contribution offers her a level of satisfaction that is worth more to her than more money or more time off.

    Your wife is not fitting The Narrative. Much like my comments in regard to rising out of poverty and such, where I spoke of my parents, relatives, etc. experience and the experience I have seen working with people on the economic margins was dismissed as anecdotal. What does not fit The Narrative can be dismissed as some sort of corner case. In spite of evidence. If evidence is statistical, it is dismissed on emotional grounds of not being “lived”, if it is empirical it is dismissed as lacking scientific rigor. The main objective in either case is to discourage effort at any endeavor aside from complaining about stuff.

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