Holidays vs Vacation

So this week saw the British media talking about Blue Monday – that day that is annually hailed as the day when post Christmas blues and the British winter weather conspire to get everyone down, and evidenced by trends in sick days and a nifty equation. Here in America, though, we have a cure for that: another public holiday!

There are a whole lot of holidays in the States that are considered important enough to merit a day off from work. The one that falls on Blue Monday is Martin Luther King day, which perhaps inspires some mood-lifting reflection on the advancements of the civil rights movement – or maybe right now some sober national soul-searching about how far the movement really has advanced – but mainly gives us all that apparently much-needed duvet day.

The holiday situation in the states is contradictory. On the one hand there are many one-day, secular holidays, which are observed nationally/ on a state by state basis/ by certain workplaces. They seem so numerous to those of us brought up on Christmas, Easter, and May and August bank holidays, that they keep catching us out – Veterans Day was an odd day off work in the middle of the week in November, while Columbus Day and Labor Day were weird but welcome bonus bank holiday Mondays in September and October. My response to these days off can seem rather ungrateful, but as a non-American (and actually I think some Americans feel this way too), I’m just not at all emotionally invested in these nationally defined holidays, and they often just interrupt the flow of what I usually see as a season in which I can get my head down and get some work done.

The large number of public holidays is also deceptive. An American’s response to my observation that we get lots of holidays here was an outraged ‘are you kidding me?!’. Because the flip side to the frequency of one-day communally observed holidays is the very small amount of discretionary holiday employees are granted by their workplaces. In the UK there’s a minimum amount of holiday allowance an employee is entitled to (28 days if they work 5 or more days a week, though the 8 national/bank holidays can be included within this) and recent changes in the law means that even contract workers or temps are entitled at least to a pro-rated holiday pay. In the US the average holiday allowance (without public holidays) is 10 days. That common goal of a British middle-class family – an annual fortnight’s holiday on the Med – would pretty much be impossible over here without maxing out your leave.

This emphasis on defined holidays rather than discretionary leave is dispiriting for a number of reasons. The first is that it’s infantilising. Rather than being able to take responsibility for your time and workload, you are essentially being told when to take a break – regardless of the missed deadlines and scheduling nightmares this might cause, and regardless of how ready or not you feel for a break. It also encourages the perception that, apart from on these specific days, you will be contactable and available. Finally – joking aside – it does make that 10/14-day vacation very difficult to take.

Personally right now that’s frustrating because, as visitors, we naturally want to do some traveling. But it’s also prompted me to think about the value of longer vacations over odd days here and there. The major value of a longer holiday is that you actually take a break. For example, if you take a week off, work gets rescheduled, delegated and otherwise put away, and you can spend the time switching off, getting over the annoyances of the day to day and clearing the clutter of your work mind to make space. This is great, and it can mean that a week’s holiday means you go back to work rested and better able to deal with people. But it’s the second week that can be really transforming. Once you have cleared your mind of the nitty-gritty, a second week of holiday allows you to think strategically, about your personal and career goals as well about the bigger picture of your work. This can lead to more creative and even blue-skies thinking. It might look like you’re simply dozing in the sun, but in reality you’re re-organizing your directorate/ planning a whole new piece of work/ coming up with the perfect way to phrase or conceptualise a complex idea.

Perhaps this is all just me wanting a fortnight of sun, sand and sea (it’s getting cold again in DC)! But it does seem to me that Americans get a raw deal when it comes to vacation.

3 thoughts on “Holidays vs Vacation

  1. That’s certainly my feeling Jash – although there are now 11 national holidays I think (seem to be in DC).
    James – good point. There was an advert during the Super Bowl that was based on the fact that so many American families are now spread out across the whole of the States. They really don’t see each other much. Although, they will drive what would seem to us to be ridiculous distances. I know people who will drive through the night on a Friday from DC just to spend part of the weekend with family in Michigan or Massachusetts.


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