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Fighting our fear of vacations

July 7, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

We Americans are a funny lot when it comes to our vacations.

We get about half as much vacation time as our European counterparts, and yet, we still seem reluctant to use even the limited time that we have.

On average, Americans receive just fewer than four weeks of vacation and holiday time each year (and many of us receive much less than that). In contrast, workers in the United Kingdom receive about six and a half weeks, those in France earn seven weeks, and those in Italy receive nearly eight weeks, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Despite the fact that we get fewer than 17 vacation days each year, some studies have shown that a third of us don’t even use those.

There may be a variety of reasons for this.

In these tight economic times, many of us may not have the dough to take vacations.

Those who do have the money may be influenced by dwindling consumer confidence and a lack of job security, and decide to hold on to what they’ve got.

The weak dollar and the ever-increasing cost of airfare may make potential travelers think twice about traveling abroad, and skyrocketing gas prices may make even a road trip closer to home an unattainable luxury.

As food and energy prices increase, many Americans are worrying about how to pay for basic necessities, and not even contemplating vacations.

Many Americans avoid vacations for other reasons.

Some people feel that they just can’t get away. Perhaps they believe that they are indispensable in the workplace. Maybe they are. As companies continue to downsize and cut costs, there are fewer wage slaves available to cover vacations.

Some people may feel that if they take time off, their employer will use this against them, and fear it will hurt their chances for advancement.

Others may be overwhelmed to start with, and may worry that if they take time off, they will never be able to dig themselves out of the mountain of work that will await them upon their return.

Some companies encourage employees to take vacation time, but then require them, before they leave, to do all of the work that they would miss while they are gone, and arrange their own substitutes to cover those things that cannot be done in advance.

As a result, employees who are already overloaded may end up working like fiends for days or weeks prior to their vacation just so they can get a few days off. Then, instead of taking life easy, they might still spend their vacations stressed out and worrying about their jobs.

When taking a week of vacation, many people spend the first couple of days getting out of work mode. They finally relax about mid-week, and then, a couple of days before they head home, they start to think about work again.

Even when we do manage to escape from the office, studies have shown that about 20 percent of us do at least some work even while on vacation. This may involve checking voice mail or e-mail, or working on projects that just can’t wait.

Some employees do this simply to avoid being in worse shape when they get back to the office, but whatever the reason, it doesn’t make for a very relaxing vacation.

Technology, which should make our lives easier, can also make us slaves to the world of work. Like the tentacles of a giant digital octopus, these electronic bonds can snare us and prevent us from ever really escaping our jobs.

There is something a bit pathetic about the sight of someone in a beautiful vacation spot, perhaps on a beach or in the great outdoors, having a business conversation on a cell phone or concentrating on a wireless handheld device or laptop, and not even noticing the beauty around him. These people might just as well be back at the office, for all the relaxing they are doing.

Vacations should be a time to unwind, recharge, and reconnect with the world around us.

We spend far too much of our lives working as it is, and is sad that so many of us waste our limited vacation time on work.

Apart from economics and job security, the problem may be due to our American obsession with work.

I understand this kind of obsession. I am a recovering workaholic myself.

There was a time when my rare vacation days always included a morning call to my assistant for a briefing on the day’s events.

When I arrived at a hotel, my first order of business, after ascertaining the location of the nearest pub, was to check my voice mail and forward calls with instructions for their disposition. It all seemed so important at the time, but now, through the clearer lens of time, I can see that it didn’t mean a thing.

In those days, I was obsessed with business, and, as a result, I missed the opportunity to enjoy a lot of other things along the way.

I am better now.

At least I try to be. It is difficult to completely forget about work. Because of the nature of what I do, there is always a running commentary going on in the back of my mind. Everything I see can trigger a potential story idea or suggest some future project that I might want to explore. It’s all material, after all.

I am getting better, though, at living in the moment and enjoying the here and now.

I may still be guilty of slipping out a notebook now and then, and making cryptic notes to myself when I see or hear something that intrigues me, but I am getting much better at relaxing and believing that the future will take care of itself.

These days, I am less concerned about reaching an arbitrary destination, and more willing to sit back and enjoy the journey.

The office will still be there when we get back. There will still be too much to do and not enough time to do it.

For now though, the only deadline I am concerned about is my next tee time.

I will eat when I get hungry, and sleep when I am tired, and the most important job I will have the rest of the week is spending time with my family and friends and enjoying the beauty of northern Minnesota in the summertime.