Why Can’t We Disconnect From Work?

It’s obvious to most people that Americans are addicted to work. While Europeans nosh on tapas and sip wine after work hours and on weekends, we’re frantically creating the next PowerPoint presentation. While they’re enjoying a four-week summer break, we’re reading reports and responding to emails from our mobile office on the beach. We just can’t seem to disconnect.

Studies show that about half of all vacation time in the United States goes unclaimed. In addition, we’re the only country in the industrialized world that doesn’t guarantee days off.

Ponder these facts: Career site Glassdoor recently reported that 75 percent of Americans do not take all of their allotted days off, and 15 percent of them didn’t take any vacation time in the last 12 months. The leading reasons for not taking a break include: concern that no other employee could do the job (33 percent), fear of getting behind (28 percent), complete dedication to company (22 percent), the desire for a promotion (19 percent) and fear of losing the job (17 percent).

If you land in the 22 percent who cite complete dedication to company, congratulations! Perhaps on your deathbed you will wish you had worked even more hours, seen less of the world and spent less time with your loved ones.

However, if you fall into the group that does take time off, the story isn’t much better. While they were on vacation, 24 percent of employees surveyed said that co-workers contacted them about a work-related matter; 20 percent heard from their boss about the job; and 17 percent reported having a difficult time not thinking about work.

Remarkably, only 9 percent indicated that family members complained that they were working while on vacation. I guess that’s an indication of how low things have sunk—or how frightened people are about their loved ones losing their job.

It’s one thing to work hard and have a purpose; it’s another thing to work hard and have no purpose other than to work. Adding insult to injury, there’s evidence that even with all their time off, Europeans’ productivity is about equal to that of workers in the United States. But even if U.S. productivity is higher, what is it buying us other than bragging rights?

I have no idea where all of this will end. But one thing is perfectly clear: Relying on the business world to provide real vacations and paid time off, and relying on ourselves to regulate our tech devices and time, is an abysmal failure.

Unless something changes radically, expect more burnout, frayed nerves and diminished productivity. After all, we’re only human.