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August 1st, 2008
07:41 AM ET

Is vacation ethical? The answer – and why!

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
AC360° Contributor
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek.com

Which of the following statements is most accurate for you?

A) I receive 15 days of paid vacation each year, and I take them—guilt-free.
B) I receive 15 days of paid vacation each year, but I feel guilty if I take any of them.
C) I haven’t had a vacation in years; I’m loyal to my company or business and am proud of this fact.
D) I work for myself and don’t take vacations; if I don’t work, I don’t make money.

Even if you chose “A,” you surely know people in the other three situations. We in the United States wear as a badge of honor the fact that we rarely, if ever, take time off from work. We need to earn a living, and many of us like what we do, so our reluctance to take vacations is justified, right?

No, it isn’t.

Leaving work behind for a period of time is not only acceptable; it is our ethical obligation.

Here’s why.

AN INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

With respect to the number of paid vacation days that employees get, the U.S. ranks toward the bottom of 49 counties, according to the human resource consulting firm Mercer. Among large firms in this country, employees are allotted an average of 15 days off with pay, aside from holidays. (Source: CNNMoney.com, June 13, 2007). This figure may sound impressive, but consider the situation in other countries: Australians, Italians, Latvians, and the Japanese get 20 days off; Swedes and Greeks get 25; Lithuanians get 28; and the Finnish and the French get 30. Imagine taking up to six weeks of paid vacation each year and not feeling the slightest bit of guilt in doing so. It’s not a fantasy; for many, it is a happy way of life.

Many countries mandate paid vacation, but the U.S. is not one of them, so it’s quite possible that many firms here view vacation days as a perk, a benefit, something above and beyond the call of duty. But for ethical reasons, it is a serious mistake for employers to view vacations this way, and it is just as wrong for employees to feel that they are being disloyal to their employer or their colleagues when they take time off.

WHAT DOES ETHICS HAVE TO DO WITH VACATIONS?

These are the five fundamental principles of ethics:

  1. Do No Harm
  2. Make Things Better
  3. Respect Others
  4. Be Fair
  5. Be Loving

Ethical responsibilities apply not just to how we treat others but to how we treat ourselves, too. Although ethics is fundamentally a guard against self-obsession, it is right and good to treat oneself with respect, fairness, and compassion and to avoid causing ourselves harm.

Now consider two states of affairs: how you feel after working for a long time without a break, and how you feel during and after some restorative time at the beach. Can you really be at your best when you’re running on empty? Aren’t you more likely to do a good job when your batteries are recharged?

Taking a vacation from time to time enables you to do your job to the best of your ability, and this is one reason why vacations are an ethical issue. Another reason why it is ethical to take time off periodically is because we simply owe it to ourselves to rest. The ethical arguments for taking vacations are in fact similar to those for staying home when you’re sick. Doing the right thing for yourself and your clients means that that when you’ve got a cold or the flu, you ought to stay home and get better. Being an ethical person also means cashing in those vacation days each year, out of respect for both yourself and those to whom you provide a service.

OBSTACLES TO TAKING VACATIONS, AND HOW TO RESOLVE THEM

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for not taking time off, and how you can respond effectively to these challenges:

I work for myself/My employer doesn’t give paid vacations/I’ve been laid off, and I need to work.

The reluctance to give up some future revenue is understandable, particularly in our current economy. But how often is this an excuse, rather than an accurate reflection of one’s financial situation? Taking a vacation doesn’t have to mean gambling big in Vegas or flying first-class to Sydney, as fun as these trips may be. With “staycations” becoming more popular, time away from work can mean nothing more than sleeping late, watching DVD’s, and eating lots of comfort food at home. We budget for meals, clothing, and transportation. Shouldn’t we also budget for a vacation? Yes, there ought to be a law mandating paid vacations, but until that comes to pass, we’ll have to find creative ways on our own of taking off.

I love my work, and I’m miserable when I’m away from it.

Maybe it’s time to get a hobby! I’m reminded here of Godfrey Reggio’s astounding 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. The title is a Hopi term for “life out of balance.” It’s wonderful to get jazzed about one’s job—I feel the same way—but a rich, meaningful life involves things beyond work.

Most of the people I work with aren’t taking vacations, so I don’t want to burden them with the extra work they’d have if I left for a while.

It’s praiseworthy to want to avoiding causing undue stress on your colleagues, but you—and they—are entitled (ethically if not legally) to some time off. Ultimately, the fair distribution of labor is a management issue, and employees shouldn’t have to worry that a justifiable absence will result in an undue burden on the team.

I’m the only one at work who can do my job. The company, and my clients, can’t afford for me to be away.

It’s nice to feel wanted or needed, but few of us are truly indispensable, as much as we may hate to admit it. I submit that in most cases, the idea that you, and only you, can do your job is a delusion of grandeur rather than a reflection of reality.

I feel guilty when I take vacations.

If you’re not yet convinced that it’s ethical to take time off, perhaps it’s time to talk with a trusted advisor about why you feel you aren’t worthy of a trip to the mountains or the shore or even just some time to yourself. You have every reason to feel good about treating yourself right, and vacations, however you choose to spend them, are self-indulgent in the best possible way.

TO EVERY THING, TURN, TURN, TURN

Checking e-mail, taking work-related phone calls, and reading material related to one’s job are not the elements of a true vacation. A working vacation makes about as much sense as showing up for a corporate job in shorts and a tank top with a margarita in your hand. To the list of things for which there is a time—a time to be born, a time to die, a time to weep, a time to laugh—one might add, “a time to work, and a time to take a long break.”

Editor’s Note: Dr. Weinstein will discuss this article on CNN’s “Issue #1” this Tuesday at 12 noon ET. You can read more from Bruce at TheEthicsGuy.com


Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Raw Politics
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. William

    Give me more vacation. I will not feel guilty!

    August 2, 2008 at 12:23 am |
  2. James Dylan

    #4- Be fair. How is a paid vacation fair? It seems rather simple to me; work you get paid, don't work you don't get paid. Isn't the idea of paid vacation actually just giving the employers the responsibility of managing your money? This whole realm of thinking turns people into children and employers into parents. People need to take more responsibility for themselves seems to be an underlying point of this article and I agree with that. I have to disagree with the path to #2. I'll take all my money on my check thank you. And when I decide to take a vacation, see you when I see you.
    A man I work with once asked what I told our boss on a day I didn't come in. "I told him I wasn't coming in." "That's it?" "Does the reason why really matter to him or is it any of his business? The only thing he needs to know is if I'm going to be there tomorrow."
    When my boss asked if I was sick I said no, I was feeling to good to be here. He laughed and said he should fire me. So I told him I was looking for a job when I found this one then starting working. My boss and I get along well for the very reason he doesn't need to babysit me.
    One might ask the reasoning for the story or behavior. It is to prove nobody owns me; I'm fully capable of taking care of myself.
    To the fifth principle of ethics, be loving. Love is an emotion and emotions can't be controlled. So what is being asked here is to act, to lie. This principle is a lie in and of itself. You might as well sum them all up by simply saying be good. Of course then we fall back to the question; what is good? And the answer has yet to be confirmed.

    August 1, 2008 at 10:29 pm |
  3. Annie Kate

    At the company I worked for you got so many days for vacation, sick, and personal leave and anything over 40 hours at the end of the fiscal year you lost – they didn't pay you for them like some do. You would think that was encouraging you to take your days off, but you would be wrong. Your yearly evaluation suffered if you took what your supervisor viewed as "too much" vacation and that varied from supervisor to supervisor. Why did this matter – well, besides wanting to know you did a good job that year in a good evaluation, your evaluation and your rating on it was what determined whether you got a raise or not that year and how large the raise was. You couldn't win.

    And when you did take a vacation anyway you had to carry your pager and be available for "emergencies" – just about anything qualified as an emergency. Work was always a page away.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 1, 2008 at 8:53 pm |
  4. John

    From what I have seen, most Americans hardly work WHEN they are at work. They spend Monday getting over the weekend, Tues, Wed, and Thursday they work, and Friday is a blow off day for the weekend. If their is a "3 day weekend involved" then they only work 2 full days. I think a vacation would apply for TRULY hard working people such as blue collar trades, managers, and supervisors. Jobs where a person has no supvervisory responsibilities and no true accountability, there should ne no vacations longer than 1 week

    August 1, 2008 at 5:13 pm |
  5. Adelle, Brooklyn Ny

    In this article it mentions the idea of a staycation, Kristin, I'm sure there's plenty to explore in Philadelphia and just outside of it. Check out the department of parks and recreation.

    August 1, 2008 at 3:23 pm |
  6. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    I would love to take a vacation but seeing that I can hardly afford the gas to get to work, I definetly can not afford the gas to go anywhere else. Prices seem to be coming down but too little too late for me. Its August 1st and summer is winding down.

    August 1, 2008 at 2:44 pm |
  7. Melissa, Los Angeles

    Unfortunately we have bred a culture to always make more. More money – more products/services yet cut down on the cost of labor so now we have found ourselves in the dilemma of not taking a vacation because we're overworked and will get further behind or we'll receive criticism from our superiors for taking a vacation.

    August 1, 2008 at 1:30 pm |
  8. Ayse-London

    I read your article and then I had to read it another three times as I simply could not believe that people are made to feel guily for taking their vacation!!!!

    Vacations from work is not a privalige it is a statutory right of the employee, anyone who is made to feel bad needs to go on a permanant vacation from the company they work for.

    August 1, 2008 at 11:22 am |