September 4th, 2014
12:13 PM ET

Why we should all use our vacation time

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The world's second richest man said recently that we should all be working just three days a week. Which is why Stephen Colbert joked: “Now you know why he’s only the second richest man.”

Actually, Mexico's telecom magnate Carlos Slim isn’t alone. His fellow billionaire, Larry Page (the co-founder of Google), recently pushed for a reduced work week as well.

Why are the mega-rich telling the rest of us to work less?

They have different strategies and goals. But they're right that being a workaholic is not only bad for your health and sanity – it's bad for the economy. Really.

Americans are notorious workaholics. They take much less vacation and work longer work weeks than most of their counterparts in advanced industrial countries. And here's one more piece of American exceptionalism: the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world where workers are not guaranteed paid vacation time. As a result, it's said that as many as 23 percent of Americans get no paid holidays or vacation. Americans who do get paid time off only take about half of it on average, according to one survey.

By contrast, Europeans believe in a work-life balance. Across the Atlantic, workers are guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days a year. In some countries, employees enjoy as many as 25 or 30 days.

It's not just in the United States that work-life balance is off. South Koreans are also workaholics. In 2012, South Koreans worked nearly the longest hours of any OECD country. But get this – South Koreans were only about two-thirds as productive as the average OECD worker that same year. As a result of working too hard, perhaps, South Koreans are the most sleep-deprived of any OECD citizens.

So, in order to boost productivity this summer, the city of Seoul encouraged government workers to take a daily nap!

Now, in general, workers from poorer countries – using less fancy technology – are generally less productive than workers in richer countries. So Asian workers have historically been less productive than Americans, though the gap is narrowing. Germans work 600 hours less every year than their Greek counterparts, for example, but German productivity is 70 percent higher.

Americans are truly exceptional in that we work long hours and still maintain relatively high productivity levels. So Americans should take some time off to relax and recharge. It might even pay off in the workplace.

The accounting firm Ernst and Young studied its own employees. It found that for every additional 10 hours of vacation an employee took, the company saw an 8 percent improvement in performance ratings. And guess what? Taking a vacation has trickle down effects.

A study commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association shows that if Americans used all of their allotted time off, there would be an additional $160 billion in sales, not just in travel related businesses, but across several sectors. That would generate an additional $52 billion in earned income and 1.2 million additional jobs for the American economy.

So, if you are lucky enough to get paid vacation time, you should take it – all of it. Consider it your patriotic duty.

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