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Why Vacation Matters: The Problem with PTO in America

By Jordan Hanson  •  June 1, 2015


Why Vacation Matters: The Problem with PTO in America

Posted by: Jordan Hanson on June 1, 2015

“Vacation really matters,” I thought, standing at the frontmost part of the ship despite the labels warning the large antenna above might start spinning at any moment. A more open, vacation-encouraging work environment affected such a dramatic change in the quality of my work life.

Recently, Infegy took its first company-wide vacation. A seven-day break from all things work-related, we enjoyed the opportunity to bond and relax far, far away from our Kansas City office.

I stood at the bow of our cruise ship, basking in the warmth of Caribbean sunlight. At the front of the boat, I left all the commotion and recreational bustle behind me. The only noise I managed to hear was the wind in my ears, creating waves at the water’s surface to crash against the hull. Clipping across the channel between Tortuga and mainland Haiti at the ship’s maximum speed of about 21 knots, we were on our way to the next port-of-call.

A Difference Like Night and Day

Before starting at Infegy, I worked many other jobs with a variety of paid vacation opportunities. Some had stated maximums of paid time, one offered unlimited vacation with a whole lot of caveats that prevented me from using it whenever I saw fit, and then there were others that offered no vacation time at all.

Like many Americans, between the required managerial approval of PTO and its subsequent scheduling around “the needs of the business,” I struggled to use it all before the year was over. For a variety of reasons, I never felt completely comfortable taking time away from work.

Infegy’s vacation policy is very different. Taking time away from the office is not only unlimited, but encouraged. The company recently paid for a 7-day cruise in the Caribbean for each staff member in addition to a plus-one.

Making stops at Haiti, Jamaica, the Grand Cayman Islands, and Mexico, my coworkers and I did everything from scuba diving to surfing and beachside horseback riding to poolside movies beneath the starry night sky.

The Vacation-Avoidance Complex: Why Americans Avoid Taking Time Off

Vacation Deflation

Recent research data suggests that more and more Americans struggle like I did with taking all of their allotted time off. If people enjoy vacation and getting away from work, why does the percentage of Americans able to take advantage of paid time off continue to decline?

A Topic Cloud Representing Social Media Conversations On VacationImage by: Infegy Atlas

Everybody loves vacation. A simple survey of my coworkers suggests that nearly 100% of people enjoy time off work. While this sample size is comically small and could never hope to represent the vast amount of people in America, I started to wonder if everyone enjoys as much freedom.


US President Taft’s 2-3 Month Vacation RecommendationImage by: New York Times

According to one 2008 study from the Families and Work Institute, employees in the U.S. are allowed an average of 15 paid vacation days per year. Even when they’re offered the opportunity to use all of it, at least half of the work force took 13 days or less.

President William Howard Taft famously suggested to the New York Times in 1910 that vacations should actually be closer to three months. While many of us would scoff shamelessly at the notion we could take a quarter of the year off, isn’t it at least possible Americans could use more of their vacation time to be better-rested and happier employees the rest of the year?

The data suggests this might not just possible, but a historical reality for the country. Last year, Vox suggested that since July 1976, the percentage of workers taking a weeklong vacation has fallen from its peak of about 80 percent to just 56 percent in 2014.

A publication from last summer by Project Time Off, a research-driven initiative by the U.S. Travel Association, may suggest several reasons why.


Percent of Workers Who Took a Weeklong Vacation in the Last YearImage by: Vox

Approval Problems

Over 67% of workers reported receiving negative, mixed or no messages about using their vacation time. Over 30% of workers say they do not have the ultimate control of their paid time off.

It’s not as if their management find it easy to honor vacation time, either. Nearly the same portion of senior business leaders, just over 30%, refrain from characterizing the approval of PTO requests as simple or easy.

Many American workers who choose not to take their maximum amount of vacation time say they’re afraid to leave work because they’ll feel replaceable. Others suffer from what some researchers characterize as the opposite, naming it a ‘martyr complex’ in which they feel no one else can do their jobs nearly as well.

Perhaps the barriers to having vacation time approved might be a contributing factor. According to John de Graaft, head of the nonprofit Take Back Your Time, one of the major factors preventing companies from offering more vacation, more frequently, is a short-term view of profits.

While a growing body of research illustrates the long-term benefits of more frequent vacations, de Graaft said “shareholders are calling for [the] quarterly report, not the five-year.”

US President Taft on American’s Need for Vacation

But Business Benefits, Too

To quote President Taft directly from his 1910 commentary on vacation, “[t]he American people have found out that there is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one’s health and constitution….”

Daniel J. Levitin, director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, wrote in his own opinion piece for the New York Times, “This radical idea — that problem solving might take some time…could have profound effects on decision making and even on our economy… You want your diagnostician to give the right answer, not always the quickest one…this is why air traffic control and other high-attention jobs typically require frequent breaks.”

Indeed, studies seem to concur. The data suggests that long-term business interests might be served best with more frequent vacations which focus on the health and productivity of the employee after all.

The Framingham Heart Study found women who took at least two vacations a year were one-eighth as likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack. Another study, conducted by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacation were also less likely to suffer from depression.

It Might Be Good to Get Out

As it turns out, when people can relax and disconnect from their work environment more completely, as they do on vacation or other short breaks, businesses benefit too. TheHuffington Post reports that an internal study by the Ernst & Young accounting firm found that an employee’s performance increased by an average of 8% for every ten additional hours of paid time off.

The Paradigm Shift, or How Some Companies Incentivize Vacation

Some employers take this benefit to the extreme. FullContact API, a company based in Denver, offers what CEO Bart Lorang calls “paid, paid vacation.” He offers his employees a $7,500 bounty. In order to claim the money, employees must actually take a completely work-free vacation. In his words, “that means no calls, no emails, no tweets, no work of any kind.”

The data speaks for itself. Supporting the employees that make any business work just makes sense. While Infegy doesn’t offer its employees a bounty, everyone is encouraged and allowed to take as much vacation as they feel is necessary.

At the end of the day, a key piece of any business is remembering that it cannot survive without the people responsible for its success. Whatever benefits vacation may add to business, remember: vacation is only beneficial if you actually use it.


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