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July 16, 2007
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Give It a Rest

Money magazine recently reported statistics about how Americans and others use or don’t use vacation time. Of course, the HR Doctor read his issue of the magazine a bit late, being away on vacation at the time it arrived.

The conclusion is that Americans spend more time at work and less time away on vacation than their colleagues “across the pond” in Europe. In fact, Americans accrue about 14 days of vacation on average, while the Germans gather in 26 days a year, and the British 24. The winners in the reported survey however were the French who receive 36 work days of vacation per year!

The next conclusion however, was that even though Americans earn significantly less than half of what their French colleagues earn for vacation, Americans don’t even use the time they have. Americans use 11 days of vacation on average in comparison to 25 days for the Germans, 21 days for the British and all 36 earned by the French. 

What is it about our culture that drives us to focus our energies on our work life, and spend less time acting on our opportunities to be away and relax?

Going “away” on vacation does not, of course, mean that you have to head to the nearest airport and spend an hour having your water bottles confiscated and removing your shoes to fly to exotic places like Belize, Cyprus or South Africa. Often, the best vacations are not only the ones nearest to home. In fact, they may well be the ones spent at home.

They are the days we may take off to extend the weekend by a day, or to visit with our children or grandchildren. They may be that extra day or two spent on chores in the garden or taking the final exam in the graduate class we had signed up for last semester. It may just be a day to sleep-in. The word vacation after all, stems from 14th century Latin meaning freedom or release from something such as a duty, a business or a routine.

In the public sector, vacation is not only accrued, it has come to be regarded as an entitlement. That firefighter who accrues an hour of vacation time when he or she is a nineteen-year-old rookie is encouraged by firehouse folklore not to take time off but to save it because seemingly overnight the value of that one hour, earned at a rookie’s pay rate has suddenly morphed into a battalion chief’s rate of pay. 

The person is now “entitled” to be paid for that hour at a many, many times higher rate than when it actually accrued. This hidden money market account is part of the reason why tax payers increasingly look askance at the compensation being received by public employees — that is, if the taxpayers realize what is going on in the first place. The accrual of vacation, saving it, rather than using it, becomes another form of retirement investment. 

The HR Doctor just helped arrange a voluntary early-retirement package on behalf of a city government to help reduce long-term costs.  One of the first to take advantage of it was a fire division chief who would cash out at age 45 about $160,000.00 of pay-out for accrued leave.

In effect, this employee chose, consciously or unconsciously, over many years not to take all the vacation time available. The result is that his new retirement home can be almost fully paid off before he even moves in.

Pay for time not worked, including unscheduled sick leave use, “floating holidays,” “Kelly days” in the Fire Service, and other creations such as personal days, make it possible for the real amount of paid time-off taken by many public employees to be well up there with our European Union friends even while accumulating the hidden money market fund referred to above.

In the next generation of public servants, a greater value will be placed on time away from work than even receiving a pay increase. This precious time away to pursue self-actualizing interests that superstar employees may have will certainly include time at home with children rather than having them raised by anonymous day care workers or by Jerry Springer as they sit hypnotically in front of a television set.

Working a flexible schedule will be important to many to be able to pursue hobbies or continuing education, volunteer for charities, or even consult or work part-time. All of these “flexibilities” will make it necessary for employers to adapt in order to attract and retain the best and the brightest.

Over the next few years, the number of workers available to fill jobs, especially government jobs, will increase substantially. However, the number of applicants arriving with proven track records, with a can-do attitude and with a passion for service, will be in short supply. 

One of HR’s greatest challenges — one of public administration’s greatest challenges — will be to advance the creation of a new merit system.

What many jurisdictions have now is called a merit system. The reality, however, is that it is a one-size-fits-all system — where nearly everyone receives so-called “annual merit raises” with the prime requirement being that the person has remained conscious or semi-conscious at least, for the past 12 months.

The one-size-fits-all model rewards the superstar at the same rate and in the same manner that the semi-conscious worker is rewarded. This will fail to keep superstars employed in the agency or to build a reputation for the agency that will attract the amazing talent which 21st century public service demands.

The HR Doctor recommends that you immediately plan a vacation of the kind you’ve always dreamt of taking. For the HR Doctor this meant it was a week in both the Greek and the Turkish sides of Cyprus a few months ago.  Several months from now it will mean returning to South Africa and exploring more game reserves in the custody of expert safari guide Hayden Elliott. In the future, it will be trips to see more of the absolutely astounding beauty of national parks in the United States

Balancing a life at work with the “real” life that includes work but is not limited by it is an important component to living a full and even a healthy life.

It’s time to vacate your normal routine. Take your new digital camera and go play for a few days! Come back refreshed, come back with memories of wonderful experiences, and come back with your batteries recharged. 


Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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