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Thou Shalt Take Vacation – the American Cultural Taboo

You Have the Power to Change and Combat the Americans' Fear of Taking a Vacation

The road to vacations does not have to be rocky for US employees (though these Giant's Causeway rocks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland, are totally worth checking out).  Photo © Jasmine Martirossian

“I have not taken a vacation since 2004,” says Randi[i] with wistfulness mixed with a tinge of pride. She waves her arms, gesturing for me to look around her office, as if the connection should be self-evident “we have been so busy working at the office, so much to do.” My eyes must register shock, because Randi starts reassuring me, “Oh, no, I am fine, I have taken a day here, a day there, but not a full week, three days at most.” We are in 2018, so it’s been 14 years of no vacations for Randi, a financial institution executive. I am hoping that she is a cultural outlier. But let’s face it, Randi’s lack of vacation taking has deep cultural roots in the American cultural taboo around taking vacation.

What Feeds the Vacation Taboo

There are many reasons behind the vacation taboo. This reasoning, no matter how misguided, is ingrained in the American culture. Specifically, it’s believed that if you take a vacation, you may not be loyal to your company, or you may make yourself appear redundant, or you may not care or value your position, or you may not be interested in advancing your career. And these beliefs are reflected in popular culture.

For instance, there is a scene in an episode of the popular TV show Mad Men, where the characters of Peter Campbell and his brother Bud, scions of a wealthy New York City family, are discussing their upcoming summer vacation plans. Peter Campbell says that he does not plan on taking a vacation, to which his brother responds “Don’t scrimp, take a vacation. Don’t Judy’s folks have some incredible vacation spread?” Peter’s comeback, “It’s not about the money, Bud. I am very important to the agency. My absence is felt.”[ii] There you go, the implication being that you must be unimportant if you go on vacation.

In a recent Vanity Fair article on Nan Talese, the legendary editor that has redefined publishing over a fifty-year career span, and now has her eponymous imprint, Evgenia Peretz shares the following exchange between Dick Snyder, CEO of Simon & Schuster and Nan Talese, who worked at the publishing house:

Determined to squeeze the most out of his employees, Snyder [Dick Snyder of Simon & Schuster] tried to get Nan to work during August – but she wouldn’t have it. She recalls her response, which she considers so “smart-alecky” she almost doesn’t want to repeat it. “I said, ‘You know, Dick? I don’t want your job. I just want to do what I’m doing.’ This was the end of my problems with going away for the summer!” [iii]

And there we go, the implication of Nan Talese’s “smart-alecky” response is that if you are looking to advance in the company, then you shouldn’t take a vacation. In fact, it’s a wise commentary and observation on her part in relation to the American vacation taboo.

The Shackles of the Vacation Taboo

I have had a number of direct experiences with the vacation taboo. Memory is fresh when I had taken a new position at a greater Boston area office of a multinational corporation. First week on the job, and a team member of mine – let’s call him Larry – asked me to approve a two-week vacation, as he was headed to Thailand. Without batting an eye, I approved. You see, I had just come after years of working in Toronto, Canada, where taking a two-week vacation is de rigueur, won’t raise eyebrows, and has none of the attendant American stigma. But my approval did get raised eyebrows, and a summons to the VP’s office, who with genuine surprise asked, “Now, Jasmine, why would you approve his two-week vacation request?” “Why wouldn’t I?” was my inquiry. The VP’s point was that we shouldn’t encourage people to take vacation. “Look,” I said, “He is going to Thailand, it takes almost three days to get there. And what would we gain by holding him back – a disgruntled employee? How is that going to help his productivity or morale?”

Larry did go to Thailand, and he was a very solid employee, who could be counted on to deliver. Yet snarky comments about Larry’s performance would occasionally snake their way to me. I spoke with Larry, evaluated his work, and he was consistently solid and dependable. So was the trickle of complaints about Larry – complaints not based in fact, but a general state of dissatisfaction, which made me consider and look outside his performance.

You see, Larry cherished taking his vacation time, and he saved every penny he made to indulge his love of travel to places far and wide – Morocco, Australia, Scotland, Thailand, Italy, Mexico, France, and the list goes on. Larry also loved talking about his vacations, and this bred resentment in his colleagues, who, being mentally captive to the vacation taboo, consciously or unconsciously disliked Larry for ignoring this taboo. So, I had a private conversation with Larry, asking him to partake in a social experiment – he would stop sharing the tales of exotic vacations and places, and we’d see if the complaints about his performance would stop. In the meantime, I supported his love of travel and taking his vacation, and he would only share with me where he was headed. For public consumption, he was repeatedly headed to Upstate New York or, better yet, was renovating his imaginary porch. It worked like a charm – all complaints about Larry’s performance stopped. In effect, it was a sad validation of the vacation taboo at work.

Then there was the time when I was strongly sought out by a tech company with offices in Boston’s Back Bay. They had come to me through a headhunter, their business was thriving, and they appeared headed to becoming one of the start-up unicorns, with promises of going public and making it big. Aside from appearing to be an exciting place with all the accoutrements (think catered lunches, office smoothie bars, ping-pong tables, Friday beer, blaring pop music) of a modern tech company, for me, their office was also within 10 minutes of walking from home. The compensation package was very strong with one glaring exception – paltry vacation time. So we countered through the headhunter.

The CEO of this “unicorn-to-be” and I met for lunch at the Bristol Lounge of the nearby Four Seasons Hotel. Getting over the requisite niceties, the CEO delivered this line: “You see, Jasmine, the problem is not that you are asking for extra vacation time, the problem is that you might actually take it.” Then the CEO looked at me quizzically seeking confirmation if I would really stoop so low as to take vacation. And I was mentally dialing the headhunter the remainder of this lunch meeting to withdraw my candidacy. As soon as I hightailed out of there, I made the call. In fact, I am grateful to the CEO for that statement, because it exposed a culture clash that was best prevented.

The Vacation Equality Project – Not Quite a Success

And this vacation taboo makes the US stand out in a uniquely negative way among Western industrialized nations. In fact, “America is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation days on the federal level, which means 28 million workers receive zero paid holiday, according to a new [2014 – JM] Hotels.com study.”[iv] Yes, you could argue that it’s self-serving on the part of Hotels.com and its parent company Expedia, the world’s largest travel company, but they are performing public service by raising awareness of the issue.

And while Hotels.com and Expedia poured a lot of resources into the Vacation Equality Project, retaining agency services of “Crispin, Porter, and Bogusky, which previously created the celebrated socially-minded move for Amex, Small Business Saturday,”[v] and got wide media coverage,[vi] [vii] they still failed to secure the requisite 100,000 signatures to get an official response from the White House.[viii] It’s a testament to the fear instilled by the vacation taboo that in a country like the US, with a population of nearly 323 million people as of 2016,[ix] 100,000 folks believing in vacation equality could not be found. In fact, the “petition garnered 17,120 signatures, short of the 100,000 signatures necessary for an official White House response.”[x]

The vacation taboo is so strong that those Americans, who actually get paid vacation time, don’t fully use it. In fact, “Americans who receive paid vacation time only used 51% of it in 2013, according to a Glassdoor survey of 2,300 workers. The survey also found that 19% of them don’t take long vacations because they want to have an edge over their coworkers come promotion time. Not only did Americans take only half of their allotted vacation time, but they also often worked through their vacation. About 25% of vacationers had their vacation interrupted by their co-workers and another 20% were interrupted by their boss.”[xi] Yeap, I am complicit having worked on vacation – sitting across from the Parthenon on the Athens Acropolis, answering emails, being there, but not seeing, easily comes to mind.

The Glassdoor survey also revealed that fear is a major factor for Americans not taking a vacation: “28% of workers were afraid they’d get behind on work and 17% were afraid of losing their job.”[xii] When I worked at a leading Boston-based mutual fund company in the mid-90s, I was struck by the fact that almost no one took a vacation. The most anyone did, was bookending days on long weekends. And a couple of executives did come to a restructured position, so the message was clear – don’t take a vacation, it’s bad for your career and well-being.

What Kills Us Does Not Make Us Better

However, it can be argued, that the chronic lack of taking vacation fueled by the vacation taboo and anchored in misguided and unfounded ideas about company effectiveness and employee productivity, is bad for our national health and well-being costing companies much in terms productivity, burnout, and uninspired performance. The costs of healthcare in the US are staggering, and Americans lag behind their counterparts in industrialized nations on key metrics for longevity and health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 610,000 Americans (or 1 in 4 deaths) die annually of coronary artery disease.[xiii] Again, according to the CDC, “Antidepressants were the third most common prescription drug taken by Americans of all ages in 2005-2008 and the most frequently used by persons aged 18-44 years. From 1988-1994 through 2005-2008, the rate of antidepressant use in the United States among all ages increased nearly 400%. … About one in 10 Americans aged 12 and over takes antidepressant medication.”[xiv]

Ariana Huffington has been championing the advocacy against “busyness” and for unplugging. Huffington cites that according to the World Health Organization, stress costs American businesses around $300 billion per year. Sleep deprivation tacks on another $63 billion.[xv] Could lack of rest and burnout fueled by the vacation taboo be contributing to these dire statistics? Absolutely.

We Make the Culture and Fun Days

Hiding behind the dominant culture is one of the easiest cop outs in avoidance to take responsibility and drive change. Culture is the compounding of individual behaviors and mental expectations regarding established behavioral norms. Culture can change only if enough people have the courage to change their own behaviors, and model them for others. And the tide is turning in the US, with the ascendant voices of people like Ariana Huffington.

I am blessed to be working at a company, TTA (The Training Associates), where on top of the vacation time, the company’s President and CEO Maria Melfa innovated and launched fine Fun Days per year. The Fun Days are meant to further enhance the positive cultural environment that already exists at TTA. Fun Days do not need to be scheduled ahead of time. This allows employees to take days to have fun with family, friends, or take a little time to themselves. Maria Melfa was inspired to come up with this concept so that employees can take the day off without feeling guilty. “We all have that pressure and stress of balancing personal and professional lives,” says Maria Melfa, “and I wanted for people to simply have a day for fun, making it a day when they could be spontaneous, and enjoy themselves.”

It takes true leadership and courage to take the position of advocating for people to take actual vacations, to come back recharged, refreshed, and re-energized to innovate. Next time you are taking a vacation, enjoy, and know that you are helping yourself, your company, your country and culture, and you are breaking the shackles of the vacation taboo.

© Jasmine Martirossian



[i] Name changed to protect privacy.

[ii] Mad Men TV Show, Season 2, Episode 6, Minutes 10-12

[iii] “The Lady and the Scamp” by Evgenia Peretz, Vanity Fair, April 2017, p. 158.

[iv] https://skift.com/2014/07/25/hotels-com-takes-up-the-fight-for-guaranteed-vacation-days-in-the-u-s/

[v] http://creativity-online.com/work/hotelscom-vacation-equality-project/36451

[vi] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/vacation-equality-project-brings-attention-to-inequality-of-paid-vacation-time-for-americans-267502331.html

[vii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/07/vacation-equality-project_n_5658415.html

[viii] https://www.awwwards.com/sites/vacation-equality-project

[ix] https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/robert-schlesinger/articles/2016-01-05/us-population-in-2016-according-to-census-estimates-322-762-018

[x] https://www.ama.org/publications/MarketingNews/Pages/the-right-to-rr.aspx

[xi] https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/aug/06/americans-vacation-congress-paid-time-off-work

[xii] https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/aug/06/americans-vacation-congress-paid-time-off-work

[xiii] https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

[xiv] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.pdf

[xv]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/paid-vacation-days_b_5693225.html

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