In 1910, President William Howard Taft was asked by the New York Times: "How long should a man's vacation be?"
Americans today are likely to laugh at Taft's suggestion of taking two or three months off, as many are trying to squeeze in a mere week of vacation before summer ends. When it comes to taking breaks from the daily grind, Americans aren't doing very much of it.
According to a 2008 study from the Families and Work Institute, a think tank that focuses on the changing work force and family, American employees receive an average of 15 paid vacation days per year. And even when offered it, employees often do not take all of the vacation they are entitled to. Half of the work force took 13 days or less.
Taft reasoned that vacations provide needed energy and effectiveness, which is backed by a growing body of evidence that time away from the office is important to people's health, well-being and productivity at work. John de Graaft, who is the head of the nonprofit Take Back Your Time and is currently shooting a documentary on vacation time, believes that the long-term benefits of vacation time for employees outweighs the short-term savings of remaining in the office.
"Vacation time is a chance for employees to unwind and avoid burnout," he said, "and for employers to have happier and better workers."
Time off is productive
When entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased. Similarly, studies are finding that vacation time is important for happy, hard-working employees.
A 2011 study conducted by Expedia found that of those surveyed, 45 percent agreed that "they come back to work feeling rested, rejuvenated, and reconnected to their personal life" after vacation, and 35 percent said "they return from vacation feeling better about their job and feeling more productive."
Even in studies that don't rely on self-reporting, there is evidence of improved productivity among workers who take vacation. An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts.
According to de Graaft, one of the major reasons that companies don't offer more vacation time is a short-term view of profits. While research reveals the long-term economic benefits of allowing employees more vacation time, executives and managers tend to focus primarily on short-term profits. In America, he said, "shareholders are calling for quarterly report, not the five-year."
Vacation for your health
Even more important to businesses than the benefits of a boost in productivity could be the costs associated with health problems that result from a lack of vacation time. Research has found that vacation is not only fun and refreshing, it may also promote good health.
One of the most comprehensive studies on vacation time and health was the Framingham Heart Study, a cardiovascular study that began in 1948 to follow people who were at risk of heart disease. The researchers found that the women in the study who took at least two vacations a year were almost eight times less likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack than women who only vacationed every six years or less. Similarly for men, a 2000 SUNY-Oswego study that followed 12,000 middle-age men over nine years found that taking a yearly vacation decreases the risk of a fatal heart attack by 32 percent.
The mental health benefits of vacation time have also emerged in the research. A 2005 study by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacations were less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts who did not. The women who vacationed less or not at all also reported feeling more tired, more tense and less satisfied in their marriages.
Researchers from the Pittsburgh's Mind-Body Center surveyed women who had been recruited for four other studies on breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and other conditions. Of those surveyed, people who engaged in more leisure activities reported more life satisfaction, tended to be more religious in orientation, and reported having a large network of friends and family. De Graaft said that one of the most important benefits of vacation time is the family-bonding aspect, as one of adults' fondest memories of childhood are often of their family vacations.
The American way
According to experts, Americans are peculiar among developed nations in their lack of mandated vacation time. According to a May study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive economic policy think-tank, in most European countries, paid vacation time of at least 20 days is the norm — with many countries requiring more. The United States, on the other hand, has no legally mandated leave, and only Puerto Rico mandates any vacation time at all. While private employers often provide paid vacation time, one in four Americans are offered none, forcing them to use unpaid or sick leave.
And paid vacation days are doled out unequally based on class in America. According to the CEPR study, “Low-wage, part-time, and small-business employees are all less likely to receive paid vacations or paid holidays, and when they do receive paid time off, the amount they receive is far less generous than what is available to their higher-wage, full-time counterparts with larger employers.”
In May, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., introduced a bill that would mandate one to two weeks of paid vacation time for all Americans. Grayson's pitch for passage of the bill reflects the emerging research on the issue of vacation time.
“This is a matter of justice and equality for all Americans,” Grayson said in a press release. “Sure, some Americans receive paid vacation leave, but an increasing number receive nothing at all — and this comes at a time when middle-class Americans are working harder than ever. Requiring paid vacation leave will allow workers to spend more time with their families, improve their mental and physical health, and ultimately be more productive in their workplace.”
The bill has not progressed in Congress — they are currently on vacation.