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Annual Leave and why the US is the Worst in the World

A common topic amongst us all and certainly a debate I love having with folks is around holidays or vacation days or personal time off (PTO). Here in the US we have what I describe as the most backward philosophy in not just the developed world but the entire world. The overarching philosophy is that you are guaranteed nothing and should earn any time off you are given and that includes sick leave and Federal holidays.

On the flip side of this debate is the productivity of the workforce and economy at large along with the innovation potential and the US is undeniably a leader along with countries like Korea, Israel and Germany and to a lesser degree the BRIC nations and Singapore. However this is largely in spite of the overall US philosophy and if you dig deeper you will realize the innovation is coming from folks and companies that are in the main far more forward thinking when it comes to company vacation policies.

For those of you both in and outside of the US there are some things I should outline that might shock people from all corners of the globe.

  • In the US, Federal (and State) holidays are at the discretion of the private company as to whether they are given to employees. Practically speaking this means holidays like Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day & Veteran’s Day in particular are often not or partially given as days off to employees
  • Globally, for private employers with the typical Monday to Friday full time workforce, all national holidays are given to all employees with few exceptions
  • The US is the only nation in the world with no mandatory vacation and sick leave policy for workers as legislated by the government

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As you can see the United States for any type of day off be it a sick day, a vacation day or a national holiday leans toward the benefit of the employer’s discretion completely as there is nothing mandated by the government. Now without getting to much into the statistics around productivity, health, creativity, etc., it is probably apt to point out some of the major recent findings;

  • 20% of US workers have postponed a vacation because of a job (CCH)
  • GoHealthInsurance.com reported a 200% productivity increase across workers when switching to an unlimited vacation policy
  • Men are more likely to work during a vacation (54% v 37%)
  • 57% of US workers had unused vacation days in 2011 which accounted for 70% of their total allotment (Harris Interactive)
  • US Employers like Target, Best Buy & Macy’s made retail workers work on the usual sacred family Thanksgiving holiday in 2013
  • Almost 1 in 4 Americans receive no paid vacation or paid holidays (Forbes)
  • Some states like NY want to mandate sick leave but employees would earn these pro-rate by working
  • The average vacation length for US inc. weekends is 3.8 days (U.S. Travel association)

The above statistics are symptomatic not just of legislation but the general philosophy the US populace has towards vacations that they are a luxury, reserved for the few and hinderance to the act of making money be it at the individual level or the company level.

However if you look where the growth and innovation is coming from in the US economy it is coming from companies like Netflix, Hubspot, Evernote, The Motley Fool and even legacy behemoths like IBM and they all have unlimited vacation policies. Google and Amazon have 3 weeks, Facebook has 4 weeks and companies like Adobe have both summer and winter week long company wide breaks on top of individual vacation. This is on top of flex time, employee service perks in the office, working from home, better parental leave policies, etc. all of which make for a happier and clearly more productive worker.

Ultimately some companies will have to be mandated to ever change in the US but it is good to see that modern private companies are taking a lead versus older private companies and the government is failing to ensure that human beings are being treated as more than a spoke on a wheel.

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