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The Right to Rejuvenate

Micronesia. Tonga. Kiribati. Marshall Islands. Nauru. Palau. The United States of America.

These countries all belong in a group together, but for what?

No, they don’t all enjoy year-round tropical beach weather. Just ask our friends along the U.S. North Atlantic coast who are digging out from the recent late-winter Nor’easter.

Hint: a goose egg appears in the columns “paid vacation days per five-day work week and “paid public holidays” next to these countries.
Well, I guess that was more than a hint. Subtlety was never my strong suit. My bad.

Since this is a blog that compares and contrasts the business cultures of the USA and Germany, here are the stats for Deutschland:

Paid vacation days per five-day work week: 20
Paid public holidays: Day of German Reunification (October 3) is a paid public holiday nationwide. Aside from this, it is up to each of the 16 German states to decide which public holidays will be paid. These days vary between 9-13, with Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg having the most.

Now that I’ve put the numbers out there, it is time for some clarification (For yuks, I’m giving myself bonus points for every word I use that remotely rhymes with “vacation”. One point for me!).
Those goose eggs do not mean that American workers do not everrrr get paid vacation. Rather, they indicate that such days are not mandated legally at the federal level. This reflects a deeply embedded cultural value that employers should have a maximum amount of freedom to determine how they regulate their own workplace.

That said, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that 77% of employers in private industry granted employees both paid vacation days and paid public holidays. These numbers are murkier for part-time employees and employees of small enterprises. Anecdotally, based on the comments to numerous articles on the topic, the amount of paid vacation time employees get from their companies varies wildly, from none to five weeks. Some get the time without the pay.

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Nothing like a long summer vacation to recharge everyone’s’ batteries and create a sense of family adventure!

What’s maybe even more interesting is that Americans—as a collective whole—seem to shrug their shoulders on the topic of paid vacation (a 2014 petition to compel the White House to take up the issue fell flat). Many of the various commenters wished for more time; several, however, indicated they would not know what to do with extra paid vacation time since they are not big travelers, for financial reasons or otherwise. Still others dreaded the work pileup, some feared being seen as “slackers” and thus feared repercussions for their jobs, while another contingent was bothered by the cognitive dissonance of being paid to do “nothing”.

The slacker fear is real, and points to a major distinction between the American and the German business culture. No, not that Germans are slackers. Whereas German employees enjoy contractual protections that make their job positions comparatively secure, Americans live under an “At Will” employment ethos, better known to Germans as “hire and fire”. In many American states, employers do not have to provide a reason to fire an employee, which means even valuable workers could theoretically be let go from one day to the next. The likelihood of this happening is up for debate, but the possibility alone is enough to put a damper on anyone’s extended-vacation spirits.

The perception that someone who is not at the work place is enjoying downtime or “doing nothing” is also, alas, a persistent one that echoes the Protestant work ethic as old as the founding of the country. Specifically, the first European settlers in America were Calvinist Protestants. Calvinists had a, well, special view of the role of work, which, arguably, remains detectable in our cultural fabric to this day. Digging deeper into this here is beyond the scope of the overall topic at hand, but this New York Times book review sheds some more light for those who are interested in how Calvinism may (or may not) still be influencing our business culture.

Has anything else rhymed with “vacation” yet? Man, I’m losing my rhyming mojo.

Anyhoo, back to modern times: it’s not really that Americans dismiss out-of-hand the need for leisure time; it is very much that we stop short of seeing extended time away from the workplace as a necessary investment for keeping employees highly productive the rest of the time. Call it residual Calvinism, call it naked capitalism (you made me say naked!), call it Shirley…the sumpthin’ fer nuffin’ prism we Americans tend to filter things through while clutching our pearls is hard at play here. Never mind that employment, health and travel experts see this differently; deeply ingrained cultural norms are a [female dog] to change.

With this elegantly-formulated hypothesis in mind, I suggest that–for the time being anyway—the most realistic way to ensure paid vacation time for American employees is by way of private companies themselves. Here are some that are leading the way with particularly creative vacation incentives (yes, one company is Canadian…that didn’t slip past me. Does “Canadian” sufficiently rhyme with “vacation”, by the way?). It’s a great way for companies to attract—and retain—talent.

The devil on my shoulder is whispering that such incentives are often not extended to every level and type of worker and that not everybody is fortunate enough to be hired by goodie-stocked companies; Here’s where I sure diddly would love to see some (maybe state-level) incentives for businesses to offer their employees paid vacation. If the Feds were inclined to kick something in, so much the better. But now I reckon I’m really thinking outside the box. But give me props for doing pretzels to avoid suggesting anything resembling a mandate. Change in cultural perspective takes lots of time and baby steps.

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Nuttin’ wrong with working the earth on your vacation time…especially if the kiddos do the hard labor!

So, why do I even care? I’m here in Germany, after all. But maybe that is why. Having lived here to the point of almost complete acclamation (the almost is significant, but not relevant here. But HEY, “acclamation” rhymes with vacation!), I’ve seen the systemic benefits of normalizing employees’ (or citizens’, depending on who’s court you believe the paid vacation ball to be in) right to pull away from the daily grind completely enough to truly slip into relaxed-person mode. And by “slip into relaxed-person mode”, I mean neither having to worry about answering a steady trickle of business-related e-mails at the beach nor about how to finance said break in the event it is not paid. Knowing that extended times away from the workplace are never out of reach, German employees are able to keep their noses to the grindstone that much more when they are on duty. And, brother, they do work intensely. My plentiful anecdotal observation is validated here.

It actually matters very little exactly how one chooses to spend one’s vacation time. There’s a joke here about spending one’s days in “Balkonia”, meaning lounging on the balcony. Ever diligent, some Germans do DIY home improvements or gardening work on their time “off”. We as a family often take the opportunity to indulge our wanderlust (like here, here and here), though we have our share of “staycations” as well. Whatever. The point is to disconnect digitally and mentally—like a detox for the soul—to get the energy flowing again. Employers benefit directly from the rejuvenation in elevated employee motivation and productivity.

Sounds like a win-win to me.

Doing business with Americans? Learn more about how U.S. culture influences the way Americans conduct business by booking an Intercultural USA training.

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