Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Do Americans Really Scoff At Six Weeks Vacation?

Beaver. He is happy and likes to work. And you? by Marcos Zerene via Flickr CC

Beaver. He is happy and likes to work. And you? by Marcos Zerene via Flickr CC

What would you do with six weeks vacation?

I remember starting to get antsy on the second week of my honeymoon. It was the first two week  vacation of my professional career. I was a post doc, who thought science was a higher calling. And as wonderful as my honeymoon was, I was ready to go back.

When I was in the heart of my corporate idolatry, six weeks of vacation would have been out of the question. It may still be for me. There is something in the American spirit that says we should be working all the time. And while we often see this as a virtue, it isn’t healthy.

I read an interesting comment from Internationalist Shawn Mitchell to a recent post of mine on Google Plus. “Having lived in Europe a little while now, I must admit to admiring the Europeans’ approach to ‘Life Balance.’Many Americans will scoff at the idea of having more than 2 weeks of vacation a year, but our friends over here consider 6 weeks to be a good starting point.”

Merriam Webster defines scoff as “to treat or address with derision.” Do Americans really scoff at the European practice of six weeks vacation? Yup. I remember doing so myself. We used to plan around Europe shutting down in the office.

“Q3 is a tough quarter because Europeans are on vacation.”

“Better get feedback from so and so about the launch plan because he will be gone for most of the summer.”

Each of these was delivered with a little role of the eyes and/or sense of exasperation. Didn’t they care about making the numbers? What I now understand is yes, they care about making the numbers, just not as much as they care about living a good life.

In America, vacation is ok if metered out in reasonable doses. Even our two or three weeks vacation doesn’t always get taken. At certain companies, employees regularly run up against the maximum vacation accrual limit. Company policy says “use it or lose it,” and they apologetically say they will have to take Friday off or they lose the day. Why is there a sense of shame about taking a benefit that we have earned?

So what would you do if suddenly your company offered everyone six weeks vacation per year. And, your take home pay and other benefits remained the same? Would you take the six week? What would you do with the time? Does the thought scare you?

Just for fun, make a list of everything you would do if you had six weeks vacation this year. A month in Hawaii? Work 4 days a week for 30 weeks? Fixing up your home? And not just this year, every year. Is it an invitation to buy that vacation house on the lake, or is it a prison sentence, to boredom and time away from the company you love?

Now, make a list of every fearful thought that goes through your head about taking six weeks off. Are you afraid the company would fall apart, or that someone else may politically get the upper hand? Are you afraid the vacation will be held against you? Are you afraid that you won’t know what to do with your time? Will the time off bring you face to face with an empty house or an unhappy marriage? Are you afraid of judgment from peers at work, and from your inner critic?

What do these lists say about your identity, and what is really important to you? If you feel there would be a gaping hole inside of you if forced out of the office for so long, it’s time to find something outside the office to fill that gap.

Of course I wouldn’t know what to do with six weeks off. And I advocate greater life balance. Only in America.


  1. Six weeks a year? HECK yeah!!! But I think we’d quickly realize – those of us with families – that at least 2 weeks would disappear for the routine tasks of parenting duty – doctors, dentists, field trips, kids home sick. As for the 4 weeks remaining?

    Again, given the time kids have off (that we don’t), we might choose not to spend some of those $$$ on caregivers/sitters, but another week might disappear in which one parent or the other (and possibly both) takes a break with the kids – whether away somewhere or just around home, unwinding.

    That would leave a week at the December holidays (for a break of some sort, or enjoying family) and two weeks for a “traditional” vacation in the summer, if people still do such things.

    In other words, when you look at the reality of kids and school, those 6 weeks are expended easily. Moreover, I can only imagine we wouldn’t have everyone disappearing at the same time (not good for business), and families with kids of different ages might choose not to disappear at all or take breaks at varying times.

    The real net? We need more time off, more real time to rest, more time to connect with those we love, more “work to live” and not live to work.

    I’d be thrilled with three weeks for everyone… and not restarted each time you begin a new job.

    • Thanks D.A. I think you rightly point out that it doesn’t have to mean six weeks on the beach. There is a lot of everyday life that can benefit from having time away from work.

  2. Carol Jamison says:

    I appreciate this blog! As a recent returnee to full-time work, I was anxious about managing and maintaining both work and life. What I have found is a management team which *encourages* me to maintain that balance…with the understanding that I can and will manage my time to both do my job and live my life. My calendar is filled with not just work appointments, but also workout appointments, play appointments, and free time appointments. I feel quite lucky to have landed in this position!

    • Thank you Carol. I’m glad to hear that you have found such a positive situation. I think more and more companies will start to adopt policies like that because of sites like that rates employers. Plus, people are going to start demanding the freedom not to work during off hours.