© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Some years ago, I read an article in an airline's in-flight magazine. The article was all about Vacation Deficit Disorder (VDD), and it was very cleverly written, especially as many of the things that "ail" society just have to have 3-letter abbreviations or acronyms.
I started my working life in Australia, so was introduced to leisure time through that culture (which, by the way, uses the term holiday rather than vacation). And now that I've been living in the US for 32 years, I can compare the two systems, at least as much as they existed during my time in each. Along the way, I've spent quite a bit of time in other countries, but only as a visitor.
After three years in private industry where I worked a 40-hour week, in 1973. I started a job with the South Australian State civil service. There, I worked five days a week, Monday through Friday, for 7½ hours each day, for a total of 37½ hours/week. Everyone, regardless of years of service, got four weeks of vacation time per year, a good number of public holidays, and, of course, sick days.
Around that time, a major row erupted with regard to holiday pay for people who worked the night shift in a variety of skilled trades. If I remember correctly, workers on night shift were paid 17½% extra over the day-shift folks. What happened was that one or more unions demanded that these workers get their normal pay while they were on vacation, even though they weren't holidaying on night shift. Now the labor unions were very strong in Australia back then [pretty much all of them were affiliated under one massive umbrella], and the demand was granted. However, the really strange aspect was that not only did the night-shift workers get it, so too did the day shift and everyone else as well! Yes, even I got it. So, whenever we took time off, we got paid 17½% extra for doing absolutely nothing. What a country!
[Speaking of civil servants and "doing nothing", a civil servant gets home from work and his wife asks him what he did that day. "Nothing", he replied. "And what will you do tomorrow?" she asked. "Nothing", he said. When she asked, "But didn't you do that all day today?" he replied, "Oh yes, but I didn't get finished!"]
Around 1975, the state government added an interesting twist to the workday by allowing a flexible-working-hours system to be used in many agencies and departments. In my case, we had an electronic time clock that recorded time in 1/100ths of an hour. Each participant had a plastic keycard that one inserted into one's slot when one arrived at work, and that one removed when one left for lunch or to go home. The day was broken into morning and afternoon with each having a core period. For the morning, that was 10:00–12:00, and for the afternoon, it was 14:00–16:00. The idea was that ordinarily, employees would be expected to be at their desks during the core periods, for meetings or to handle phone calls from fellow employees, other agencies, and the public.
One could start work at any time 08:00–10:00, and could stop work 16:00–18:00. (The clocks did not operate before 08:00 or after 18:00, so if one had to be working outside those hours, one got one's supervisor to authorize a manual adjustment.) One had to take a lunch break of 30–120 minutes during 12:00–14:00. So the shortest day one could work was the four core hours, and the longest was 9½ hours.
At the end of each 4-week period, each participant had to have worked 140–160 hours (4x37½=150), which meant one could have a credit or debit of up to 10 hours. By accumulating time, one could take off up to two half days or one whole day per month.
The important thing about the whole program is that within reason and consent of supervisors and coworkers on group projects, employees had the ability to manage their work and personal time. For example, they could come late (or early) and miss peak-hour traffic, attend meetings with their child's teacher, take their car to a garage for repairs, or schedule health-related appointments. And in summer time when daylight savings time was in effect, they could leave at 4 pm and go to the beach or play 18 holes of golf every weekday afternoon. What a system!
[At the time, I had a supervisor who knew down to the second—I kid you not—the time it took for him to pack his things, take off and hang up his lab coat, and put his hand on the doorknob to leave exactly as the second hand on the clock passed 5 pm. When flexitime arrived, he no longer knew when it was time to quit, and it took him quite some getting used to.]
Several years later—by which time I'd moved to a different government department—being the entrepreneur, I proposed to my boss a private extension of the basic plan, which he authorized. My group had its own minicomputer, and every Friday after lunch, we disabled all users, and the machine spent 3–4 hours dedicated to backing up all its data to magnetic tape. This meant that for 10% of each week, all staff in that group were without their applications, and that seemed wasteful. I proposed that every Friday I start work after lunch and work until 9 pm, and that we'd only disable the users around 5:30 pm. That way, users had the computer the whole week and only one person (me) was unable to use the system for those few hours.
A system that existed in Australia well before I got into the work force was long service leave. Basically, it was a reward system for loyalty to the employer/company. For each year an employee worked for a given employer, she was credited with nine calendar days over and above her annual vacation. However, she could not use that time until after working there for 10 years. By that time, she had accumulated 90 calendar days; that is, 3 months. From that point on, the employee negotiated with the employer as to how much of that time she could take off and when. For example, some employees took it all off at the same time, others took 180 days at half pay, while others took a week or two off here and there. After 15 years of service, the employee accrued 15 days/year, which when taken with the four weeks of vacation gave six weeks off per year. [In 2011, this option was under threat from the Government, but was retained following protests from unions.]
People who quit their jobs before qualifying to take any long service leave, but yet having worked at least seven years, were paid out the amount accrued. Some employees were allowed to carry forward large amounts of annual vacation and/or long-service leave enabling them to retire early (possibly by several years). In the case of my wife, she was a student at a state teachers college for three years during which time she not only paid no tuition fees, she received a living allowance. As such, she was considered to be on the payroll of the state Department of Education, so those three years actually counted towards her long-service leave. What a country!
Welcome to the "Real World", America!
Imagine my surprise when I started work in the US. What a primitive country (he says, tongue in cheek)! I worked a 40-hour week, got two weeks off a year with no shift-penalty loading, and no long-service leave. And as my first Easter approached, there I was making plans for my 4-day long-weekend when my colleagues said, "What are you talking about? There are no public holidays at Easter in the US." Say what? This great Christian-founded country has no holidays on one of the two biggest Christian events; how can that be? [Australians have both the Good Friday before and Easter Monday after, off work. It's a time of huge sporting events and, sadly, many horrific road accidents.]
Over the years, I met many people who only got one week of vacation in each of their first few years at an entry-level job, and I don't recall knowing anyone who got more than three weeks. One exception was teachers, but then they either didn't get paid during their long summer break, or they arranged to get paid all year, but at a reduced salary each month.
And then there were the people who never even used all their vacation, and their employers had a "use it or lose it" policy. I noted with interest too that some employers allocated four weeks of vacation and sick pay combined per year, and if one didn't get sick, one could use those days as personal time.
Over the years, I've hosted many guests from Europe, and oftentimes I'd held receptions for them, so they could meet my friends and neighbors. Inevitably, someone would ask my guest, "And how long are you visited the US?" To which my guest would reply, "Three weeks". "My, that's a lot of time off!" "No, not really; I still have three more weeks to take later in the year."
Setting My Own Rules
Some 28 years ago, I went into business for myself, and right from the start one of my main goals was to take as much time off as I could afford. And except for a period five years ago when I worked more than fulltime on a major project, I've had at least three months off each year and in some years six months (mostly taken days or weeks at a time). My other main goal was to never hire any employees, which made it much easier to take time off.
The rationale for these goals was to enjoy myself as I went along and to travel while I was younger and in better physical condition to enjoy adventures. And with the advent of the internet, I can easily run my business from remote places while traveling for personal purposes.
Working from Home
One of the biggest non-productive periods of many workers' lives is the time they spend commuting. In my general area, it is not uncommon for people to spend 2–3 hours each business day getting to/from work. And all too often, they are stressed out by that experience alone.
From the very beginning of my business, I've worked from home. However, from time to time, I did (and still do) have to conform to the real world. For example, when I taught seminars, I had to work my clients' hours, and when I attend conferences and standards meetings, I have to work local business hours. Fortunately, these days, such events are few and far between.
Of course, telecommuting is not for everyone, even if it is a viable option. Some employees need the discipline of an office environment and the camaraderie of having real rather than virtual co-workers.
[15+ years ago, I told someone that I'd just cut my commute by 90%, and they were pleased for me, until that is I told them I'd moved my office from the basement up two floors next to my bedroom. It was about then they suggested that my parents were unmarried!]
Not everyone has the flexibility that I have enjoyed, but if you don't propose some workable scenarios and ask your employer what options exist, you'll never know. Perhaps working four 10-hour days each week and having a 3-day weekend every week or working from home one day a week is doable.
As far as I can see, many people look at personal time as that time left over after work and other "essential" things have been done. You might try looking at it from the other direction. That is, I'd like to have this much time off, and to do that here's how my work would have to fit in. Obviously, you need to work enough to "pay the rent", but it really is a matter of priorities and not confusing your needs with your wants!
So why did I leave such a great system like that in Australia? Well, as they say, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". Besides, I didn't fully appreciate what I had until some years after I had moved away. And after five years, I had plenty of flexibility due to my being self-employed.
Oh, don't forget to have your VDD vaccination!