Vacation: The Netherlands vs. the U.S.

The Dutch refer to the first Saturday in August as “Zwarte Zaterdaag” or Black Saturday. It’s called “Black Saturday” because everyone hits the road (asphalt) to go on vacation. On August 1st, there was a traffic jam in France that was nearly 900 km (560 miles) long. Last year, the traffic jam was even worse.

The Dutch really value and prioritize vacations. Workers, as well as the unemployed, are given money (vekantie geld) dedicated for vacation. The way it works is 8% of a worker’s salary is withheld, and then given back in one paycheck. Initially, I was not a fan – if we wanted to take a vacation, why couldn’t we just save for it ourselves? Being an American, the laws of instant gratification dictate that I want that money NOW. But that was before that first paycheck came in, and we used it to help fund our 3-week long vacation. Now I love it.

That was the first time I took a three-week vacation but it won’t be my last. In Europe, long vacations are common. The idea is that vacations are restorative and make workers more (not less) productive. Manon (my spouse) is given 41 workdays off a year – 25 are actual vacation days, an additional 15 are for days when the office is shut around holidays and are negotiated by the construction industry’s labor union and she gets one extra day because she’s over forty. Her team didn’t expect her to work or be available while on vacation. The way it’s handled: before someone leaves for vacation, her team meets, work is divvied up, and that’s the end of it. Employees need to be somewhat cross trained, but that’s done throughout the year.

In the U.S. this is not common, or really accepted. Project Time Off found that in 2013 American workers forfeited a total of 169 million days of paid time off; surrendering $52.4 billion in benefits.

In the US, there’s more of a feeling that vacations (both long and otherwise) are expensive and unnecessary – and there can be a certain pride in not taking them. It’s similar to the “I’m so busy” humble brag – “this place needs me too much for me to go on vacation!” This attitude is summed up well in an obnoxious Cadillac ad:

What’s this commercial’s message? Dear rest of the world – Please don’t buy a Cadillac.

Another reason is Americans don’t take long vacations is fear, or more specifically the fear of being expendable – if a company can be without you for a month, do they really need you? The New York Times recently interviewed over 100 current and former Amazon.com employees about its highly competitive office culture, one that encourages employees to work long, hard and smart. It describes long work hours, constant evaluations (employees are able to send anonymous feedback to supervisors through an “Anytime Feedback Tool”) and a lack of empathy towards workers with personal crises. The interviewees mentioned that they began “internalizing Amazon’s priorities” – or putting pressure on themselves to maintain high standards. One reason that the culture is this way is to ensure that the company does not become complacent. Based on the interviews it has taken a tool on its workers*.

This is not to say Americans don’t take vacations, we definitely do. Those who don’t take vacations sometimes aren’t even rewarded for it. According to Project Time Off, employees who left 11-15 days of unused vacation time were less likely (6.5%) to receive a raise or bonus than someone who used all of his vacation days.

We spent our vacation in Canada, meeting friends and family, biking, and watching a few Women’s World Cup matches. We went to Montreal and Vancouver – both incredibly great cities. The Dutch perspective of vacations being restorative is right on – at least it is from my perspective.

*It may be fairer to say that working at Amazon took a toll on those interviewed. Amazon disputes the article, and a number of employees have responded to it. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, said in response, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

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