Summer: one of the most evocative words in the English language. And one with many faces. The summers of my childhood make me smile and recall activities of another time and place - both literally and figuratively. No school, no regimentation and no homework. Being outside, swimming and making elaborate sand castles on the beach, riding my bicycle and taking road trips to my grandparents' house way out in the country. Picking berries and having picnics and drinking homemade lemonade.
Summer is different today. At some point summer changed from an idyllic time during which we were refreshed, relaxed and unburdened of our daily duties to a time of summer jobs, then summer internships (unpaid!) and finally paid internships that might lead to the promised land of an offer of actual employment. Fast forward some years to summers often accompanied by hectic pursuit of perfecting a tennis game or a punishing schedule of home-based projects and community service. In recent years our time off from work has morphed into a time during which we continue to work while pretending to be on vacation, leaving out of offices messages that state… ‘I’m out of the office with limited access to messages…’ a thinly veiled invitation to colleagues and clients alike to invade our vacations and our psyches with work messages.
In one of my previous positions I worked directly for the U.S. president of a British owned firm who had a very different notion about vacation time. When she was away her out of office message read ‘I am away on holiday and will not be checking messages’. We Americans were stunned and envious at her audacity, but none of us could bring ourselves to abandon our work as she did.
We workers in the US have long known that we are shortchanged on vacation benefits, but it seems we do not even take advantage of the meager amount for which we are eligible. In a study called "All Work and No Pay: The Impact of Forfeited Time Off" conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association, it was found that U.S. workers forfeited $52.4 billion in time-off benefits in 2013, taking an average of 16 vacation days, compared with 20.3 in 2000. (We did no better in 2014.)
Forbes Magazine contributor Tanya Mohn commented on this same Oxford study, noting that in addition to ‘working for free’, the study found that people who tended to forgo time off had more stress than those who took their vacation time (no surprise there) but here’s an equally stressful outcome: the report also found that more time at work did not correlate with raises or bonuses. In fact, employees who left 11-15 days unused were less likely (by 6.5 percent) to receive a raise or bonus than those who used all of their vacation days.
Let’s take stock of what we have learned:
• Use our vacation days
• Do not invite others to invade our vacation days with work-related duties
• Unplug, relax, and refresh ourselves on vacation
• If we must check emails for absolutely, positively earth shaking, urgent, crisis messages, deal with them quickly
Summer may not ever again be as idyllic as we remember it, but we should give it a try. Now, where did I put those beach chairs?