The culture of taking holiday

Now is the time of year when for many of us it’s cold and grey and we start thinking ahead about our holidays for the year. How many days of annual leave are you entitled to? Do you find it hard to take all your holiday leave or do you run out before the end of the year and wish you could take more?

Where in the world…?

The amount of holidays employees are entitled to and actually take varies significantly around the world as reported recently by the World Economic Forum.  Germany and Brazil feature up at the top of the list with up to 30 days paid' leave plus public holidays.  The UK is fairly average with a minimum of 20 days' leave plus eight public holidays.  At the other end of the spectrum East Asian employees fair less well with Chinese companies offering only five days’ paid holiday during the first ten years’ service and in Singapore it’s seven days during the first seven years’ service.  Is this because these cultures perceive less separation between professional and personal life and as collectivist cultures have more of a sense loyalty and belonging to the organisation? In European countries such as France, Germany and Sweden where more holiday is taken, the value of work-life balance is stronger and people make a clear distinction between work and private life. 

Holiday, what holiday?

There may be some correlation between cultural values and national holiday averages but it is never as simple as that.  Just take the case of the USA, an individualist culture where people tend to keep work and personal life separate. But the US is the only OECD country in the world where employers are not legally required to offer employees any paid annual leave at all.  The average private sector American worker is given ten days of paid annual but often struggles to take the full quota.  Why are American organisations so reluctant to provide paid holiday and their employees so reluctant to take it?  Is it the protestant work ethic instilled in core American values?  The USA scores high as an achievement oriented culture where competitiveness, material success and being the best are valued – perhaps leading to the 'workaholic' tendencies prevalent in many American executives.  Or is it simply a question of economic and political reality?  Employees are driven by a fear of losing their job or missing out on the next promotion and not being able to rely on the state while they look for their next position.  A recent HBR video discusses why Americans are terrible at using their vacation time.

Unlimited holiday?

Holiday entitlements also vary hugely according to corporate culture. Some innovative companies have gone against the US norm of minimal holiday quotas and now offer employees unlimited annual leave.  The Brazilian company, Semco, was actually the first to implement this policy 30 years ago, but Netflix was an early adopter in 2004 with others following suit, more recently LinkedIn and GE in 2015.

A risky strategy?

This might like seem like quite a risky strategy and it clearly would not work in service-oriented organisations where the right number of staff needs to be available at the right time to respond to customer needs.  However, most companies that have instituted unlimited holiday policies report that productivity has increased rather than decreased.  Employees are measured on their results and are more engaged and committed as they value the freedom to take time off when they need to.  And of course, some workers continue to take very little time off.  Plenty of studies have shown that most people work better and smarter when they take regular time of to rest and recharge.  A combination of long hours and little holiday does not necessarily equate to high-quality results and enhanced productivity.

Many smart companies have moved towards more flexible, results focused working and attitudes to holiday entitlement is one element of this. Technology means that where we work, when we work and how we work can vary to suit the needs of the individual, our co-workers and the organisation.  A healthy work life balance is often an important criteria when employees, particularly those from cultures that 'work to live',  are looking for their next role and organisation and so factors such as holiday entitlement can play a part in the decision making process.  How many days holiday will you take in 2016??

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