The president is facing criticism for taking a couple of vacations with his family this month. And the first lady got an earful from the press for renting rooms at a five-star hotel in Spain this summer. But it isn't just politicians who catch flack for going on holiday. Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward's yacht outing in June—well before the company's oil leak had stopped—was skewered by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as "part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes."
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The truth is that Americans probably need more—not less—vacation time. While many workers in Finland, Brazil, Lithuania, Russia, the U.K., and France are entitled to as many as 28 to 30 days of government-mandated vacation a year, there are no government mandates in the United States, and full-time workers (with a decade of tenure) typically receive about 15 days, according to Mercer's 2009 Worldwide Benefit and Employment Guidelines report. Add in national holidays, and many workers overseas get about 41 vacation or holiday days each year, while Americans get 25—just above Canadians' 19 days and Chinese workers' 21.
Even without a fear-inducing recession, Americans are so chary about cutting out of the office that career experts often chide them to take time away, refresh themselves, turn off the Blackberry, stop checking E-mail, and learn how to relax. "We are a work-identified nation, that's the badge we wear—where we work, what we do—that's how we define ourselves," says Katherine Crowley, coauthor of Working for You Isn't Working for Me: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Boss. "We have a hard time giving ourselves permission to take vacation time."
First and foremost, experts say that it's critical to refresh yourself. Go ahead and schedule the vacation. And take a chunk of time, not just a couple of days here and there, Crowley says, noting that people don't seem to really relax until the second week. Second, let your leaders take a vacation. They won't lead effectively if they're overworked and on the verge of burnout.
But keep in mind that there are occasionally good reasons to stay in the office (and you'll probably feel less guilt while sunbathing if you follow some rough guidelines). Here are the rare times when a vacation may be the wrong call:
When the company is in crisis. A business leader who faces chronic, long-term troubles will eventually need time off while dealing with them, but shorter-term crises require immediate decision-making. "If a company's survival is at stake, you don't want your leader taking off for a leisurely vacation," Crowley says. Small business owners in the Gulf weren't likely taking long personal trips in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
When you haven't planned ahead. "An inappropriate time for a vacation is when you haven't cleared it with your supervisor or with management well in advance so that plans can be made for your absence," says Alexandra Levit, author of New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career. "It is bad form to just decide at the last minute that you will take peak summer or holiday time off, when inevitably, everyone else wants that time off, too."
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When you're in the middle of a project. Be careful when you're in the thick of a project, or your best client is in a difficult situation, says Judith Gerberg, president of the Career Counselors Consortium in New York. "You may have to change your vacation time. You have to be sensitive to things like that," Gerberg says.
Employees need to predict and pay attention to important deadlines well ahead of time, says Donald Strankowski, founder and president of Ascend Career and Life Strategies in Boulder, Colo. Whether it's a group project coming to fruition, a major presentation, or a product debut, "you definitely want to be there when it's going to be unrolled, when it's revealed, when they're going to be presenting it," Strankowski says. "You want to be visible when the important news is being broadcast."
When it's the busiest season for your company. Many businesses are cyclical—think accounting firms, landscaping contractors, wedding planners—and employees should take the seasonal fluctuations into account when planning trips. "You want to be sure you're giving your group and your supervisors the impression that you're a team player—you are there and you're doing what you have to do to book revenue," Strankowski notes. There are ancillary benefits to being in the office during the busy season and taking your vacation later. If you take a vacation during the busiest days, you'll face more interruptions. So it's to your advantage to take your vacation at a slower time.
Immediately following a merger or acquisition. Visibility is critical in the period following a merger or acquisition, as your company and team are being scrutinized for things like relevance, productivity, and necessity. One of the chief concerns after a merger is redundancy, but showing up and working hard can help employees make a case for themselves.
During executive or key client visits. This is another point when visibility is critical: When a person of authority is traveling to your branch or office, you want to be there to maintain your identity as a strong player. Many of these visits are scheduled in advance, so the onus is on the employee to plan for them, Strankowski says.
Anytime a team member or supervisor leaves. This is the ultimate opportunity for you to step up, take a leadership role, and set yourself apart. "It's all about creating value in the workforce today," Strankowski says. "They have to position themselves as that star athlete, that star performer, that star player," he says. Offering to take over some responsibilities can increase your marketability at work.