My Fellow Americans, Why Don’t You Take Your Vacation Days?

Imagine yourself on vacation on the beautiful Greek island of Crete. You wake up, and the first thing you see out your window is the crystal-clear electric blue Aegean Sea staring back at you. You open the window and let that Mediterranean breeze in, giving you a kiss good morning. You close your eyes and inhale the smell of sea, the sounds of fisherman hauling in their daily catch.

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And then your phone RINGS.

That high pitched ring that sends shrills down your back, yanking you back into “real life”.

“Hi (SUSAN), hope your vacay is going well! Listen, we’ve got an emergency. I need you to resend the proposal to our client by 3 PM this afternoon. Thanks!”

And suddenly, your seaside balcony becomes your seaside office.

Now, stop imagining. For Americans, it’s real:

Two out of three American employees work while on “vacation”, according to CNN.

Now, Americans don’t get many vacation days to start. In fact, we get the least of any developed country. The average American gets 10 days of paid vacation time, according to Thrillist. However, we’re not legally required to get ANY. Zip. Zero. Meanwhile, countries in the European Union are required at least 25 paid vacation days. Check out the graph that Thrillist published:


Logically, you’d think that since Americans get so few vacation days, we’d really treasure them. You’d think we’d take every day we have (all 10!) and really make the most of it, enjoying unplugged, uninterrupted time with our loved ones in beautiful places. Makes sense, right?

Well, that’s NOT what happens. Not only are Americans working ON their vacation, but they’re not even TAKING their vacation days!

Only 23% of Americans used all their paid vacation days last year (2016).

So, my questions to my fellow Americans out there is WHY? WHY WHY WHY?

As I was reflecting on my three years living in Spain, I was struck by how much I admire the Spanish ability to choose life over work. The Spanish culture is about enjoying first, working second. There’s some deep wisdom in that. I always knew that American culture is the complete and utter opposite, but seeing these statistics in hard numbers were earth shattering. 

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So, why don’t Americans take vacation days?

Well, we’re all a bunch of workaholics! That’s the simple answer. But I think the real question might be: Why don’t Americans value personal time anymore? Last year, there was a collective 662 MILLION vacation days unused in the US, according to a study by U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off. It could be due to company culture; the more you work, the more respected you are in your company. Others fear of getting too behind their work, or missing something important. Of course, technology and the constant connectivity to work on your smart phone doesn’t help. And then, there’s those people who feel guilty. Yea…how DARE you want some personal time to spend with your friends and family!

I went out to dinner at one of my favorite spots in NYC with my friends last week. It was 8:30 PM, and they were responding to work emails at the table.

At least Entrepreneur Magazine gets it. They write that people work more productively when they’ve had time off.  In fact, it hurts your career! According to NBC news, people who don’t take time off are 78% to 84% less likely of getting a raise. Why? ‘Cause we’re not machines. WE’RE PEOPLE. People who require quality time with our loved ones, time to relax the brain, time to disconnect, and time to excel in what we love. Not just “what we do”.

Our parents’ generation used to take less vacation days, but when they did take their few vacation days, they were completely unplugged. No emails, no pop-up notifications, nothin’. They were present. Today, sure, all of us technology obsessed millennials take a couple more vacation days than our parents, but are constantly plugged in to what’s happening in the office. If you ask me, this completely prevents us from immersing ourselves in our surroundings and truly relaxing.

Europe understands. France made a law last year that workers have a legal right to completely disconnect from their work after 6 PM. Au revoir intrusive work emails, bonjour peace of mind. And Spain doesn’t even need a law! They just culturally know how to value their personal time with the people they love. What a concept!

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I’m not devaluing the American “work hard, succeed” mentality. After all, that’s one of the founding ideals of the American Dream! Rather, I’m hoping that Americans understand that life isn’t work. Work hard, play hard…and when you’re playing, don’t work. Take all your days off from work, go to a mentally far away place, spend time with your loved ones and truly disconnect. You deserve it.

Help me out here people! If you’re American, do you value your vacation days? And if you’re not American, how does it work in your country?


10 thoughts on “My Fellow Americans, Why Don’t You Take Your Vacation Days?

  1. Look at the results. US companies dominate in just about every industry, especially those that require creativity and innovation. Spain does not. Perhaps Americans work harder?

    1. Completely true. No doubt, I think Americans work harder. And it certainly pays off! There’s a reason we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. However, there’s got to be a happy medium, right?

    2. Not in my experience, Jim. There is more efficiency in the US, but not longer work hours. If you look at the stats, Greeks work longer hours than anyone else … for some of the lowest wages in the industrial world. The most exacting work ethic I found was in Germany – they drive themselves like their cars. Where Americans really dominate … is finance. Whether one agrees with that ethically is another story … but the creativity and innovation you point to stem from ease of financing, particularly seed, and start-up funding.

      But I think the essential cultural difference Casey is pointing to might be found in the quintessential anglo-saxon axiom “time is money”.

      1. Marco, your perspective is very interesting! “Time is money” definitely has a lot to do with the cultural outlook and mentality. And people truly fear that if they leave the office and completely disconnect, they’ll lose what they’ve been working for. Well said!

    3. This is true, but for an actually small number of great companies, Silicon Valley, whose non-intellectual prod is mainly based in China.

      Also, taking all into account, holidays, health care, daily stress, etc.., it is hard to choose the American model to the German or French one, even Spanish if you find a job over there :D, unless being ultra competitive.

      And this numbers on holidays are not only about workers in those hi competitive companies, but all economy…

  2. As a Euro with 9 years work experience in the USA (tech), I think one reason for the different approach to down-time may be that in America the constant objective is to be promoted, and the fear re: taking vacations is that something might happen while you’re away that pear-shapes your cunning plan, while you’re not there to defend it. But don’t get me wrong, I’m no apologist for hyper-competitive stress.

  3. I would take vacation days if I could, but in my industry, very few if any companies over PTO. Sometimes American companies don’t see people as employees but machines. I disagree that Americans don’t like vacations. It’s that we aren’t given the opportunity or that some companies look down on it.

  4. I love your blog, it seems very fresh, as far as the days of vacations, that is in the culture of each country, the North American comes from the English countries and that shows in all aspects, the Spanish as you know is mediterranea With a predisposition to live intensely hours of leisure, all this can not be changed, it’s in the genes, signed by a Madridman who would have liked to have met you in Madrid, un saludo desde Madrid.

    1. Very true Andres! Historically, the Mediterranean culture definitely understands the concept of leisure and enjoying life better than the English. Well said! I hope you continue to follow along and enjoy my blog 🙂 Un saludo desde NY! -Casie

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