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Hey America, when did we decide to vacate vacation days?

It’s summertime and sunscreen season and, it seems, we’re all battling those UVA rays — Unused Vacation Allotment, that is.

At what point did American business culture place a premium on stockpiling vacation days that carry over (well, some of them anyway) from year-to-year and eventually expire; never to be scheduled, anticipated and enjoyed?

It’s crazy.

Not sure when it started but, it seems, over the past couple of decades, there’s been a slow creep of vacation interruptus due to technology, voluntary 24/7/365 “connectedness”, and America’s ever-accelerating pace of business. “You’re awake? Great! You’re on the clock!”

Gone are the days of Mom, Dad and the kids grabbing the Rand McNally atlas, piling into a well-worn station wagon; rooftop loaded with luggage and bicycles, coolers filled with drinks, cold fried chicken, sandwiches and snacks, and the never-ending backseat battle for leg space with older sibs.

These days, we slide into spacious and luxurious SUVs with huge cargo space and individual gaming/entertainment screens, put on the hi-def headphones, take our driving cues from Waze, and bypass interstate rest stops where roadside family picnics used to take place because there’s a fast-food outlet at least every other mile-marker. (Meanwhile, Dad overnighted his golf clubs via … then never found the four hours necessary over the course of a week to play 18 because, well, emails and stuff.)

Yes, we’ve progressed in so many ways when it comes to highway-based vacation travel but it seems to be at the expense of our sense of adventure and the peer-out-the-window-and-be-amazed-by-the-countryside wonderment of days gone by. Especially on the outbound leg of a family vacation road trip when the excitement and anticipation is at its highest.

And it’s because we don’t place a high enough emphasis on vacations.

Does it seem we all have adult A.D.D.?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) in a recent report, a whopping 86% of U.S. adults constantly check emails, texts and social-media alerts. That incessant device-checking and tech engagement (true confessions: Busted!) is directly associated with elevated levels of stress. Meanwhile, those who’re content to leave cell phones on the kitchen counter while they run out or, better yet, don’t care that their laptop battery has been at 0% for three days running experience significantly lower levels of tech-related stress, the study showed.

Who are the smart ones here?

This, of course, is greatly intensified if and when the working professional does actually burn a vacation week because distance and time zones away from the office create a mostly false belief that somehow our business will flop and fail unless we remain involved, engaged and still act as Grand Marshal of the Productivity Parade.

Unknowingly, we foist this misery on ourselves throughout the year as we practice the not-so-fine art of staying ever-connected on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays when the door to the office may be locked but you can still work from home (or while running through Home Depot, or while at dinner on a “date night” with your spouse. Yeah, how does that work for you?). I’ve even seen weekend warriors stop mid-strip while mowing the lawn because their smartphone vibrated in the pocket of their shorts while they were listening to Bloomberg Minute on the satellite radio app.

It’s crazy. No, we’re crazy!

Is it time to move to Phnom Penh?

I did some research on what’s known in legislative and Human Resources circles as “Statutory Minimum Paid Vacation and Public Holidays” – a fancy term for “time off”. Between holiday and vacation pay, the Kingdom of Cambodia leads the world with a whopping 42 days of non-weekend, PTO days. The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is next at 39 days. And, God love ‘em, we do like to take potshots at the French for their red-wine lunches and extended holiday periods, but they’re only third on the list at three dozen days annually. (Oddly, Turkey couldn’t round its numbers up or down and came in at 26.5 days per annum.)

Meanwhile, we whacky Yanks don’t even have legally mandated time off. Ya know all that work-life balance stuff, yeah, well … no, apparently. According to Wikipedia, “There is no minimum paid vacation or paid public holidays. It is left up to U.S. employers to offer paid vacation.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says 77% of private employers offer paid vacation to their employees with full-timers earning an average of 10 days – but only after 12 months of employment. Additionally, the typical American business offers only eight paid holidays.

So much for work-life balance and the old notion of work-hard, play-hard. Work-hard, work-longer, maybe-work-a-little-less-on-weekends seems to be New American Way.

Hmmm … Cambodia 42 days, U.S. 18 days. How long’s that flight?

I “de-tech” a solution …

This little bit of medical insight might grab your attention and sober you up the next time you reach for the cell on your midnight nightstand because a text de-beeped your sleep. The APA also reports that over-engagement with tech devices leads to higher levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory factor that can contribute to age-related ailments like Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer.

Do I have your attention?

“Paging Dr. Jones, Dr. Kenneth Jones …”

Were I an actual physician and you my patient, I would sit you down and provide the following seven thoughts (one for each day of the week!) to enhance your chances of achieving genuine work-life balance, and enjoying a longer, livelier, more fulfilling life:

  • Take your damn vacation! – The root word is “vacate”, as in leave behind. As in, vacate work emails, texts, cell calls, file attachments, weblinks, conference calls, Skype, and whatever other vacation-hampering tech-intrusion is de rigueur this week. And take most, if not all, of your annual allotment. You earned it, you deserve it, you need it. More than you even realize.

“But I can’t do that!” you insist.

  • Yes, you can! But it takes a little preparation. – Before departing, put together an interim succession plan in which you designate a person to play the role of “you” while you’re away. Also, divvy up your normal day-to-day responsibilities among different people so as not to overtax any of the poor stiffs back home toiling in the vineyards. This allows you to actually relax (OK, maybe just a bit but every little bit counts), it challenges those delegatées to step up and demonstrate they’re capable of contributing at higher levels, and it just might help you identify those who are ready to advance to the next level of responsibility when promotion time rolls around. Of course, the time will also come when you need to reciprocate but this kind of mutual back-scratching is unbelievably effective for building team unity.
  • Unplug, unplug, unplug. Your phone. Your laptop. Your tablet.  Understandably (unless you’re on the floor of the Grand Canyon or atop Mount Everest), it’s hard to do but you must. If you simply can’t find a way to “de-tech” some peace and quiet, at least limit yourself to an hour early in the morning to respond to emails, return calls, etc. Do it in the quiet time before the fam is up and about and ready to hit the beach, the lake, the state park or the hiking trails. And let your staff know this will be your only time-window of accessibility during your vacation absence. It’s amazing how a 5PM “crisis” somehow abates in the overnight hours and can be quickly and easily addressed and resolved the next morning (with no injuries or casualties reported). Or someone besides you discovers a way to solve the problem.
  • Drop the word “vacation” in favor of “recharge cycle”. To many of us (and too many of us), the word “vacation” sounds slackish and a bit lightweight. How, in these times of urgency, productivity goals, objectives, KPIs, and SMEs could anyone possibly think of trivial matters of fun and frivolity? It’s nonsense! Well … nonsense to your It’s nonsense!

Refer to your PTO days as “recharge days”. Shifting your perspective in this manner will help you view vacation days as necessary and entirely appropriate (and nothing to feel guilty about). Don’t give in to self-imposed “vacation-shaming”, or anyone else’s for that matter.

And remember, it’s not a “reboot” or “reset” because those actions occur quickly. It’s a “recharge” and it takes time to complete a cycle. Your brain and body need an extended period of time to replenish a different sort of cell than what powers your smart devices. Your vacation is your personal “recharge cycle”. Get in the mindset!

  • Flip the phrase “work-life balance” on its ear. To reiterate my previous point, think in terms of life-work balance to remind yourself what truly should come first.
  • Be present when you’re not present at the office. – What I mean by that is get in the moment, as today’s pop culture is fond of advising. Just as you invest yourself 100% (or more) in your job, invest 100% of yourself in your vacation, er, “recharge cycle”. Trust me, reality will be the first to knock on your door Monday morning at 8 o’clock so be present and in the moment in the precious little time you have to focus on fun, rest and relaxation … and building memories.
  • Speaking of building memories … – When your number is called and you’re moments away from meeting your Creator, will all the spreadsheets, budgets, drafts, timelines and project plans really matter? Or will your personal Lifetime Performance Plan be scored based on the quality of your interactions with other living, breathing human beings, especially your family and friends? Be sure yours isn’t marked “Needs Improvement”.

In his 2011 deathbed essay, Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs put things in perspective: “Whichever stage in life we are at right now, with time, we will face the day when the curtain comes down. Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well. Cherish others.”

Twenty years from now, when your son or daughter reminisces about a long-ago family vacation, do you want them flashing back to images of you responding to emails or returning calls – or you laughing, smiling, loving and living life as a relaxed and joyous Mom, Dad, wife or husband?

You know the answer. I’ll waive the co-pay if you promise to follow Dr. Kenneth’s advice.


Unplug, unplug, unplug. De-tech, de-tech, de-tech. Honor the “vacate” in vacation and focus on life-work balance vs. work-life balance.

Cheers, y’all!

P.S. – In a couple of weeks when it’s time for me to hit the road for my family’s summer vacation, yes, I’ll re-read my own words. Promise!