Image: Living the good life
Paul Buck  /  EPA file
Catherine Gil, on vacation from New York City, catches up on reading while sunning on the beach alongside the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif. Many Americans don't take all of their allotted days off — a travesty, columnist Rob Lovitt says.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/31/2007 9:58:09 AM ET 2007-07-31T13:58:09

Tick tock, people!

Summer’s half over — have you taken your vacation yet?

If you’re like far too many of us, the answer is probably not, or at least not as much as you’re entitled to. According to a study by Expedia.com, 51 million Americans — 35 percent of the adult work force — do not take all the vacation they earn. On average, says the study, we now give up three days of vacation per year. Not only that, but we get less vacation time to begin with than workers in every other country in the study.

That’s just wrong. No, it’s more than wrong. It’s appalling. It’s embarrassing. It’s an affront to our national character, a slap in the face to our status as fun-seekers and, quite possibly, a crime against our very right to life (of Riley, that is), liberty (the kind sailors get) and the pursuit of holiday happiness.

Frankly, there oughta be a law.

Giving back, but not in a good way
The issue in question is “vacation deprivation,” an insidious condition that manifests itself in a variety of ways. In its mildest form, the disorder generates feelings of stress — work-related, of course — while we’re on vacation. Festering, it leads to monitoring office e-mail and voicemail when we should be writing postcards or lounging by the pool. And in its most virulent form, it prompts us to give up vacation time altogether, saying yes to more work when we should just say no.

Consider the numbers:

  • According to Expedia, 33 percent of employed U.S. adults often have trouble coping with work-related stress during their vacation.
  • Since 2005, the number of people who check their work e-mail and voicemail while on vacation has jumped 43 percent (from 16 to 23 percent).
  • During the same period, survey respondents reported an average gain of two vacation days per year (to 14 days). Unfortunately, they took only 11, essentially “giving back” three days to their job.

That last statistic is especially troubling when you consider that Americans already get significantly less vacation time than workers in other developed countries. Fourteen days? That’s pitiful when you consider that British workers get a healthy 24 days, Germans get a revitalizing 26 and the Spanish get a rejuvenating 30. And, mon Dieu!, the French get an inspiring 36 days.

Viva la France, indeed.

Travel hassles and working vacations
Lord knows it’s easy enough to forgo time off, especially when travel is such a hassle. Overcrowded airports. High gas prices. Seemingly endless traffic jams by the beach, at the border and in the parks (amusement, national and otherwise). Factor in the volatile dynamics of the average family trip — close quarters, conflicting agendas, innocent comments blown out of all proportion — and that long-planned vacation can quickly end up feeling a lot like work.

So, instead of going away, we go into work because it’s expected of us, because the competition demands it or because extra hours are interpreted as increased dedication. We worry that extended absences suggest a lack of commitment and fear that more time off means less job security. Besides, the work is only going to pile up in our absence, right?

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Unless, of course, we take it with us, along with the cell phone, BlackBerry and laptop computer. We go on vacation, but remain tied to the office by a tangle of technological leashes and the 24/7, always-on, always-available lifestyle. We figure we’re killing two birds with one stone, mixing business with pleasure, when, in fact, we’re doing a disservice to both and to ourselves in the process.

We deserve better, and if it takes federal legislation to make it happen, then so be it.

From personal time to national pride
That’s the idea behind the Take Back Your Time campaign, a grassroots effort that calls on Congress to legally guarantee at least three weeks of paid vacation for all American workers. The U.S., say campaign supporters, is the only industrial nation that doesn’t guarantee its workers any paid vacation time. In fact, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, one in four Americans get no paid vacation at all.

Like I said, that’s appalling. Forget for a moment the personal and professional benefits of taking time off — the stress reduction, time with friends and family and increased productivity upon our return — and consider the potential impact on the country as a whole.

Can you think of a more unifying issue in these polarized times? Red state or Blue state, Republican or Democrat — is there anybody out there who’s against more vacation time (and would you vote for a candidate who was)? In the end, the fight against vacation deprivation is a golden opportunity for bipartisan government and exactly what we need to take our rightful place among the world’s great vacationers.

Vacation: It’s not just good for you; it’s good for the nation. Get out there and do your part!

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