One of the biggest shocks I experienced as an American, moving to Europe some years ago, was the amount of paid vacation time that people got to take for granted. In the U.S. people are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation per year, and often don’t take it. In France, where I first lived when I moved to Europe, the state mandated a minimum of 25 paid vacation days per year, and the French high-tech company I worked for added more to that, giving all of their employees extra days to bring their paid vacation to six weeks per year. Add to that the French 35-hour workweek, and I thought, “How are these people ever going to get anything done?” Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this company was the most productive I’d ever worked for, in over thirty years in the computer industry. They set development deadlines that were – by American standards – unachievable and completely unrealistic, and they made every one of them. And they did so without the workers getting all stressed out.
Why? Well, one of the reasons is that France, like the other members of the European Union and other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have realized that vacations make for happier, healthier workers, and that happier, healthier workers are more productive. Only one country in the OECD has zero government-mandated paid vacation days per year – the United States. This may be one of the reasons that America is experiencing epidemic levels of stress-related diseases.
Vacations keep you healthy…and possibly alive
If you feel that “vacations keep you alive” is too strong a phrase to use, consider a study performed at the State University of New York in Oswego. They examined over 12,000 middle-aged men who showed risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD) and, as part of the questionnaires they filled out, asked how many vacations they took each year, and for how many days. They followed up on long-term mortality statistics for these men over a period of nine years, and found a direct relationship between their risk of mortality for any cause and their number of vacation days. The more vacation days they took, the lower their risk was of dying from CHD or any other cause. Conversely, the fewer vacation days they took, the higher their risk of dying; those who failed to take vacations at all had a 21% higher risk of death from all causes, and were 32% more likely to die of a heart attack.
Another study conducted at the Mind-Body Center of the University of Pittsburgh surveyed 1,399 participants and found that those who took the most vacation days “reported more life satisfaction, finding more meaning in life.” This was reflected in health statistics, because they also had lower blood pressure, fewer stress hormones, and fewer instances of obesity.
In a study commissioned by Air New Zealand, Mark Rosekind was asked to quantify the benefits of vacations. He focused on the quantity and quality of sleep that pilots were getting, which is a major safety concern for airlines. Each of the pilots who were studied wore a special watch that monitored their sleep patterns – both on the job, and while on vacation. What Rosekind found was that after two to three days of vacation, the pilots were averaging an hour more per day of good quality sleep. The result was an 80% improvement in their measurable reaction time, a benefit most would admit is of importance to commercial pilots. Interestingly, when the pilots returned home from vacation, their reaction time remained improved, an average of 30-40% faster.
Vacations are also good for the health of businesses
The experience of European businesses has certainly been that giving their employees more vacation days improves their productivity and their health. The former winds up making these companies more money, and the latter winds up saving them money that would have been spent paying for health care when they became ill, and from work days lost to illness.
John de Graaf, a consultant to the U.S. Congress on pending legislation to (finally!) create a minimum number of mandated vacation days for Americans, has produced similar figures that show that it would benefit businesses. He estimates that a minimum two weeks of paid vacation would add 2-4% to the labor costs of a business, but that would be balanced out the first year by fewer sick days and less employee turnover.
But in the United States this information may take some time to sink in. Even the workers don’t seem to realize the importance of vacation time. When 2,500 adults were asked in a recent survey what they would most like from their employers during the next holiday season, “more paid vacation” came in a distant third, behind “a cash bonus” and “a raise.” Interestingly, however, this is the first time in such surveys that “more paid vacation” has scored that highly, so maybe the tide is turning, and workers are beginning to realize that cash bonuses and raises aren’t going to do them as much good if they become sick – or worse, dead – from overwork.