Guest Host: Rebecca Roberts

D.C. can feel like a ghost town in August, with thousands of families making their annual vacation pilgrimages to the beach or mountains. But Americans receive — and take — far less downtime than their counterparts in other countries: The average U.S. worker gets just 10 paid days off, compared to 30 in Germany. Kojo talks with Howard Ross about the evolution of vacations in today’s workplace.


  • Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance" (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross


  • 13:06:41

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo. How was your commute this morning? A little quiet, a little easier to find a parking space than usual, Washington in August, it can sometimes feel like everyone is on vacation but you.

  • 13:07:12

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSWhich leads me to ask, why aren't you on vacation? Why aren't we all on vacation? What are we all doing here at work? Some worry that the summer vacation is becoming an endangered institution. According to one survey, only 65 percent of American workers are taking a vacation this summer compared to 80 percent before the general recession.

  • 13:07:31

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSSo why are Americans working more and relaxing less? Well, for starters, we live in the only country in the developed world that doesn't guarantee a paid vacation for all workers. And the average American gets roughly ten days a year compared to 30 in places like Germany.

  • 13:07:48

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSBut even when we do get time off, we often find ourselves unable to put down our handheld devices and check out from work. Joining me to talk about why we can't take a summer vacation and why we can't really relax when we do is Howard Ross, author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." He's also a principal at Cook Ross. Howard, welcome back to the program.

  • 13:08:12

    MR. HOWARD ROSSHi. Rebecca, and I agree we should go off on vacation.

  • 13:08:15

    ROBERTSYeah, exactly, let's turn off the mics. We're done here. And you can join us from wherever you are by calling 800-433-8850 or email us at Do you think the summer vacation is an endangered institution? Or have you actually been able to take some time off this summer, depending on how well you were really able to check out once you were there?

  • 13:08:38

    ROBERTSSo I just read that statistic that we're the only developed nation without, you know, federally guaranteed paid vacation time. How big a deal is that actually?

  • 13:08:46

    ROSSWell, I think, you know, Rebecca, when you look at the statistics and the amount of time that we take off relative to other countries, it plays out in that way, you know. It's ridiculous, you know, how little time we take off and the challenge with it is, is that taking time off from work actually adds to productivity.

  • 13:09:07

    ROSSI mean, obviously, if somebody is missing ridiculous amounts of work, it doesn't, but, you know, taking regular time off, not just for vacation because it's, you know, it's not always the healthiest thing for people to work continuously 50 weeks a year and then take two weeks off and then work continuously then as well, but to take regular breaks from work, to use our weekends for breaks from work time, all those things like that.

  • 13:09:27

    ROSSIt's been proven time and time again to add to our productivity. It adds to our clarity of thought. It's where a lot of our innovative thought comes from. When you look at studies on innovation and how the brain innovates, we know that there's a reason we have all these insights in showers, for example...

  • 13:09:38

    ROBERTSRight, right.

  • 13:09:40

    ROSS...these a-ha moments when we stop. I know for myself when I go on vacation -- and as you know, I just came back from two weeks' vacation just last night, you know. I usually try to separate from work and that's when, honestly, I'd get all these ideas that are coming in so I have to have a little pad so that I can get them out of my head so I'm not holding on to them.

  • 13:09:59

    ROSSBut it's true that, you know, when we're in this sort of drudgery mindset, we don't rest up well. It affects our health and our wellbeing as well as our clarity of thought and so it is a problem.

  • 13:10:08

    ROBERTSWell, so if it's an accepted truth that workers are more productive if they get some time off, why haven't more companies recognized that it actually helps their bottom line? You'd think that there would be profit in it for having more productive workers.

  • 13:10:20

    ROSSWell, I think it speaks to the American mentality really. It speaks to the foundation of who we are as a country and who we are as a culture. And like everybody else, you know, cultures are no different than individuals in that our strengths are often also our blind spots. And one of the great strengths we have in America is our commitment to production, our commitment to success, you know.

  • 13:10:40

    ROSSAmerican exceptionalism, we are the best. We produce more results than anybody else. And part of that has also been short-term thinking, see a problem, solve it, see a problem, solve it. I think Kojo and I talked once, I told him when I was in India once, I heard this joke.

  • 13:10:54

    ROSSSomebody said to me, we've got this joke we tell about Americans, but Americans don't get the punch line. I said, what's the joke? He said, the joke is, what do you get when you ask an American a question? The punch line is, the answer, because we need to solve problems and move on. And this has led to obviously extraordinary productivity on our part.

  • 13:11:10

    ROSSBut there's another more shadowed side to that and that is that we don't value the present as much. We don't value long-term thinking as much either. We're kind of in the immediate next, always in the immediate next and when we're in the immediate next either as a corporation or as a culture, the notion of taking time off because in the long run it serves because it prevents our folks from burning out because in the long run it keeps healthier employees.

  • 13:11:32

    ROSSIt's not what's on our mind. What's on our mind is how are we more productive this month than next month and the next month? And again, that's very consistent with who we are. I mean, there's no other country in the world that walks around all the time worrying whether or not we're the best at everything.

  • 13:11:45

    ROSSYou know, this is an American phenomenon and it, in a way, contributes to our being the best, but it also gives us serious blind spots about certain things.

  • 13:11:50

    ROBERTSWell, that also helps explain why it's not just, you know, limited vacation policy that is behind this. There are plenty of people who have vacation coming to them that they don't take, that they don't use.

  • 13:12:00

    ROSSYeah, absolutely, you see this a lot of times. I was just -- this morning, I was giving a talk to the leadership team at the IRS this morning and I worked a lot in government agencies. You see this in government agencies where people have this accumulative leave, in some cases, that's just unbelievable, you know, months and months and months or years even because they don't take leave.

  • 13:12:18

    ROSSAnd a lot of organizations where it's worn as a badge of courage, I've been here for 52 straight weeks and haven't taken a day off work, haven't missed a sick day, even though I've been sick, haven't missed a sick day, rather. It's like the Cal Ripkens of our...

  • 13:12:32


  • 13:12:32 know, of our culture.

  • 13:12:35

    ROBERTSThe number again to call is 800-433-8850 or email us You can also get in touch with us through the Facebook page or by sending us a tweet to @kojoshow So do you think that's why people -- I think our most recent statistic from CareerBuilder is that there's 15 percent of people who actually end up giving back vacation time.

  • 13:12:54


  • 13:12:55

    ROBERTSIs it that they can't stand the idea that the world will keep revolving without them?

  • 13:12:58

    ROSSWell, I do think that there are a number of different things obviously for different people. You mentioned earlier in the intro that we're down from where we normally are because of the recession so some of it is financial. You've got people who are in financial difficulty or they're in jobs where they no longer have the opportunity to have leave and therefore taking leave means I'm not going to get paid for that week.

  • 13:13:22

    ROSSOr, more subtly than that, I want to make sure that people know I'm important because if there are layoffs around here, I don't want to be the one laid off and one way I can make sure that I'm important is by, you know, being around all the time.

  • 13:13:32

    ROSSThere are some times when you have people who are in leadership positions -- and this is something I have to say for myself as a business owner and somebody who created a business. I know in the early stages of my career, I had sort of this thing which was I would go on vacation and, of course, the office couldn't run without me so I had to be in constant contact.

  • 13:13:48

    ROSSAnd at some point, I just realized how much ego that was, that, you know, that people that I ha, and have now in my office are incredibly competent people and they can very easily make it without me for a couple of weeks. And so this time, for example, when I was on vacation, I shut -- for the first few days, I had a little bit of business I had to do, but then after that, I shut off my email for the last week and a half.

  • 13:14:07

    ROBERTSHow did that go for you?

  • 13:14:08

    ROSSWell, it was great. I mean, I loved it. I have no problem. I have no concerns about my staff. I trust my staff completely. They knew where to reach me in case of an emergency so, you know, I knew that they would get me if they needed to, particularly with cell phones these days. I even turned off the email from my cell phone so that it doesn't show every day because I know myself and if would show, I couldn't help but look.

  • 13:14:25

    ROBERTSRight, right.

  • 13:14:26

    ROSSNow I came back to, you know, the requisite 600 or 700 emails that I had to deal with.

  • 13:14:30

    ROBERTSWell, see, that's the thing. I mean, I have to say that, you know, that feeling when you get back on a Sunday night and you've got epic loads of laundry from your vacation and the physical mail has piled up and you know there's nothing in the fridge and you think, ah, I need a vacation from my vacation, you know.

  • 13:14:47

    ROSSYes, that's right.

  • 13:14:47

    ROBERTSI mean, I'm exhausted just at the thought of re-entry. If you added to that 700 emails because you hadn't been deleting them, you know, as you went, doesn't that just, you know, add to your feeling that you shouldn't be on vacation?

  • 13:14:59

    ROSSWell, I think, you know, people deal with this differently. Obviously, individuals deal with this differently. The way I deal with it is if, you know, I set aside some time. You know, yesterday when we were travelling, before I got on the airplane, I downloaded my email and I turned it back on. I downloaded it and I had, you know, we were in Hawaii so I had lots of time on the airplane and I did -- not hundreds of them. I mean, of course, most of the time when you come back at that point, most of the emails you throw away anyway...

  • 13:15:23

    ROBERTSRight, right.

  • 13:15:23

    ROSS...because they're either time-related or they are.

  • 13:15:26

    ROBERTSMagically it was fine without you.

  • 13:15:26

    ROSSThat's right, exactly. Somehow they got the problem solved so probably out of the 700 or whatever it was, probably 500 of them just got blipped out right away and then the rest I sorted. And then last night as I was sitting around kind of getting readjusted, I did a few more and I'll catch up over time, you know.

  • 13:15:40

    ROSSI mean, but the reality is if you build it into your system and you've got a plan for it -- and it's like anything else or worst-case scenario. If people have to take a mid-week break, put aside two, three hours and do some emails so you're comfortable and then go back to your vacation.

  • 13:15:56

    ROSSBut that's very different than sitting on the beach doing your email or you know, checking in constantly and never feeling separate. And I do think that there's something psychologically that's important for us to separate from our jobs and remember we're not our jobs. Our jobs are what we do. And I say this as somebody who feels very strongly identified with my work. Still I'm not my work, my work is my vehicle to do stuff in the world, but it's not who I am and I think that's an important distinction for all of us.

  • 13:16:20

    ROBERTSWell, I mean, not only do people find it hard to disconnect from work, but physically it can be hard to disconnect from your handheld device. I mean, it's a habit. It might even be more than habit and, you know, I've heard reports that you should turn -- as you said, you wouldn't be able to ignore the email if you saw it there.

  • 13:16:38


  • 13:16:38

    ROBERTSOr if you have the noise, the pings when you've got a new message, that it's so much harder to ignore than if you turn the noise off. That we actually do have a dependency that we want to feed that reward system with those handheld devices.

  • 13:16:51

    ROSSWell, plus, we use the handheld devices for lots of things. I mean, I use my handheld device to check the weather. I use it to read the newspaper sometimes. When I'm playing golf, they have a golf GPS app on it so I mean, it's all these kinds of things. And so if I'm sitting there looking, if I'm on the golf course and looking at how many yards I have to the green on this shot and all of a sudden this announcement comes up that says I got an email from such and such, like you said, it's really hard not to look at it. That's why I just turn it off.

  • 13:17:16

    ROBERTSWe are talking about our inability to take vacation or unplug when we do and let's turn this out to the audience. Were you able to take a vacation this summer? Were you able to unplug when you did? What are your strategies for actually separating yourself from work for a little while?

  • 13:17:31

    ROBERTSThe number is 800-433-8850 or email us Let's hear from Ed in Odenton, Md. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Ed.

  • 13:17:42

    EDThank you, thanks for taking my call. I just had a comment and I wanted to -- my comment is that your guest nailed it, as far as I can tell. Anecdotally, observing American culture, having been in the military, retired from the army and I spent some time in Germany my anecdotal observation is that American culture is that of -- we're just nose to the grindstone, workaholics, which is both good and bad.

  • 13:18:14

    EDIt's the culture that's sort of made our country a superpower in a relatively very short time. But at the same time, I think it hurts us, we're unable to relax, versus by contrast in Germany, their culture is very much relaxed. They very much value their family time. Nobody works on Sunday. Nothing is open on Sunday.

  • 13:18:42

    EDThey stroll through their parks and they enjoy their families and they enjoy their downtime. I think there's something that Americans can take from that. And as far as Americans going on vacation, I mean, the vacation itself, in my observation, is work.

  • 13:18:58

    EDWe go on these industrial-style vacations, like Disneyworld or other theme-park type places and just lockstep go through these structured-sort of vacations. And like you said, you have to take a vacation from your vacation when you're done. I can take my comment off the air.

  • 13:19:15

    ROBERTSOh, thanks for your call.

  • 13:19:16

    ROSSYeah, I think Ed is so right, you know. This is not -- the vacation phenomenon is not isolated. I mean, it's tied into the fact that people nowadays get emails 24/7. I know somebody who got chewed out by her boss recently because he sent her an email at 10 o'clock at night and she didn't respond until she came into the office in the morning. You know, I mean, it's absurd, you know, this notion we're on their time.

  • 13:19:38

    ROSSAnd so whether it's the weekends or the evenings, family time, all these different breaks, you know, we're going, going, going all the time. And then part of it also is, okay, what are we going to do today? What are we going to do today? It's vacation, you know. How many things can we squeeze in?

  • 13:19:50

    ROBERTSRight, I have to learn something. I have to accomplish something.

  • 13:19:53

    ROSSThat's right, I have to do this.

  • 13:19:53

    ROBERTSI have to hike ten miles.

  • 13:19:55

    ROSSThat's right. And as opposed to the notion of just sitting around and doing nothing sometimes and there is a value in doing nothing. You know, in a lot of cultures, Eastern cultures in particular, this notion of sitting quietly for a while, the replenishing the yang energy that's always going out with the yin energy that's coming in, is something that's really valued and people realize that there's a balance to life in that which keeps us physically healthy. It allows our motor to run down a little bit, to quiet down a little bit.

  • 13:20:22

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Anthony in Mount Airy. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Anthony.

  • 13:20:27

    ANTHONYHi there. Thank you so much for taking my call. It was interesting talking to Ed 'cause he brought up a couple of different things that I realized and didn't realize. My mom has a cousin in Sicily. And they go to work at 8:00. He comes home at 1:00. They have their big meal in the middle of the day, which is, you know, 1:00 to 3:00. He takes a nap and he wakes back up. He goes back into work at 5:00, comes home at 8:00 and they have leftovers. It's a completely different lifestyle.

  • 13:21:00

    ANTHONYYou brought up about, you know, oh gee, you didn't get my emails, didn't get back to me. I sent you the email at 10:00 last night. Well, we expect instant response to emails in this country. But when I send emails to the company that I deal with in Italy, if I get a response in three weeks, I feel privileged.

  • 13:21:22

    ANTHONYIt's a completely different system over there. We went over to buy a bottling wine -- we operate a winery here in Mount Airy -- and we went over in 2002 to buy a bottling wine and we went over in August. And he goes, oh gee, well, we're only going to have a skeleton crew because everybody shuts down in August. I said, what? He goes, oh yeah, all the companies in Europe shut down and basically we all trade countries. Germany goes to Italy, France goes to, you know, Germany. It's bizarre.

  • 13:21:52

    ANTHONYWe went over there in August and you couldn't find a local license plate. They were all out-of-country license plates. They all just switched countries, and it's mandatory, you know, everybody shuts down in August. That's just what it is.

  • 13:22:08

    ROBERTSAnthony, thank you for your call.

  • 13:22:10

    ANTHONYIt's a completely different atmosphere.

  • 13:22:13

    ROBERTSYeah. So, I mean, before we get too far down the, you know, Europeans are more sophisticated and superior, Italy also has some economic issues from not having a particularly productive workforce. So, you know, there are balances here.

  • 13:22:27

    ROSSWell, I think that that's a good point. And that's why I was saying before that our strengths are also our weaknesses. They're not divorced from each other and it's really -- but I remember, I think it was George Will who wrote a column a couple years ago about this very thing. He said, yeah, you know, everybody talks about the fact the Europeans -- but what do they produce, you know. And there's truth to that. You know, we...

  • 13:22:46

    ROBERTSThey do produce wine, to Anthony's credit.

  • 13:22:47

    ROSSWell, there you go. We do make sort of a deal with the devil, so to speak, when we do this. You know, if we decide that we're going to take more time off that means that something gives -- the productivity gives on the other side. On the other hand, if we decide that productivity is all that matters we give up something in terms of the rest that we have in our lives -- the quiet we have in our lives and the quality of our life at a fundamental level.

  • 13:23:08

    ROSSAnd the challenge is we don't seem to, as cultures, be able to do a good job of balance of both things. And I do think that one of the things that is important to note is that our constructs of values are built around the very way we act. So for example in America, because our values are about produce, produce, produce, you know, that the way we establish ourselves is by producing a lot, we measure the impact of these things based on how they affect production.

  • 13:23:33

    ROSSSo that if somebody would say well, taking vacation a month instead of two weeks would cut production by 12 percent -- well, 12 percent's too much -- but 5 percent, we'd say, oh my god, we're going to lose 5 percent of production because we value production. We don't say, on the other hand, like Bhutan, where they have now instead -- they now have their -- what is it, their global happiness index instead of their global productivity index -- who would say, wait a second. If we take too much -- if we don't take enough time off, we're going to affect our happiness index.

  • 13:24:01

    ROSSAnd unfortunately this ends up impacting families in terms of relationships between spouses, divorce rates, relationships. We've seen parents and children. I mean, the best time I have with my son -- my one remaining son who's home and with my other kids has been on vacation. And those are the times you get to really relax and be with each other and get to know each other. So...

  • 13:24:20

    ROBERTSWell, speaking of needing to take a break, we need to take one here. Howard Ross and I will be back after we've had a couple of minutes to recharge our batteries. We'll be more productive. You can join us at 800-433-8850 or email us We'll be right back.

  • 13:26:37

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Howard Ross, author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance." We are talking about vacation, whether we are able to take them as much as we should, whether our offices are able to give them as much as we want and whether we are able to take advantage of time away when we actually are able to take some time off and unplug a little bit.

  • 13:27:03

    ROBERTSAnd we are taking your calls. In fact, let's hear from Robert in Washington, D.C. Robert, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:27:08

    ROBERTHello. Well, I just had a quick comment to add. I'm taking my first real actual vacation in about seven years of working full time.

  • 13:27:18

    ROBERTSSeven years, Robert, really?

  • 13:27:20

    ROBERTOh, I mean, taking off, you know, two days here and there or an extended weekend to go see family doesn't really -- I don't really include that as a vacation vacation. I'm taking a week off and going to Iceland. I decided to leave the country for the first time so I can actually fully put my phone down and separate from work for a full week.

  • 13:27:40

    ROBERTAnd as a precursor to that, because I'm -- you know, I'm guilty of staying constantly connected to work, I took a three-day trip to go see family and I shut my phone off for the entire length of the trip, which was difficult, to say the least. But I was actually quite pleasantly surprised when I got back and none of my stores that I manage were on fire and my employees managed to take care of business as usual.

  • 13:28:05

    ROSSShocking, huh?

  • 13:28:07

    ROBERTSWell, Robert, have a great trip and good for you. Yeah, it can be a little bit of a mixed blessing to find out that everybody survived without you.

  • 13:28:14

    ROSSWell, this is a really important thing for us to understand is that, I mentioned before, you know, we're now dealing with it at sort of a lower level in the organizational structure and there are a lot of people now who are afraid, if they can do too well without me do they really need me here. And at a time when people are laying people off at different times, that's threatening. But historically it's definitely been where leaders of organizations have slipped into this sort of -- the ego says people need me at the core in order to survive. I like being at the core of things, which is why I put myself in this position to begin with.

  • 13:28:44

    ROSSAnd I've seen numerous times when people have been away, people survived perfectly well without them and then they came back and started throwing monkey wrenches in the work, almost as -- not consciously necessarily but almost as if the unconscious mind is saying, let me make sure that you know that you didn't do as good a job as if I was here. And I think that that really is problematic personally and I think it's something we need to look at.

  • 13:29:05

    ROSSYou know, if our organizational structure is so dependent upon us in order to survive than we're in a very vulnerable state because god forbid if we should get injured or something else should happen. And so the more we can begin to build organizational structures that are independent of us, can function independently of us certainly for periods of time, we're better off and produce healthier organizations.

  • 13:29:28

    ROBERTSWe have an email from Mike who's a recent law school grad who says he's "had trouble finding long term employment because the trend in the corporate world is to hire contract attorneys on an hourly basis." And it's not limited to the legal industry based on what he's read. And he says, "you know, this means that taking vacation is really expensive. You have to pay for the vacation itself, add in the cost of the money you're not making while you're gone." And he says, "For me at least, this meant I was only able to take six days off this summer."

  • 13:29:54

    ROSSYeah, and that's a financial reality for a lot of people if you've stopped your earning. I mean, there certainly are ways to reduce the cost of the vacation itself, even what people are calling staycations now, doing stuff at home. We do a lot of home exchange. We love doing home exchange and it's just worked out really well for us. We did that when we were in Hawaii for example. And so a lot of times we can take -- we can use our travel miles to get there and then stay in somebody else's home.

  • 13:30:16

    ROSSBut you also have to be the kind of person who doesn't mind somebody staying in your home. That's a particular mindset. Sometimes we've even exchanged cars with the people so we can have virtually free vacations other than food and the like. But there are ways to have -- even like I said, staying home and taking advantage of the area is one way to rest.

  • 13:30:32

    ROSSWell, the other thing I think it's important for people to recognize is that there's something very different between our last caller -- I think it was Robert -- who was saying, you know, he'd taken a day here, a day there or three-day weekends, four-day weekends. It's something very different between taking three- or four-day weekends and taking an extended period of time.

  • 13:30:47

    ROSSI know for myself I've found that if just even a week is not enough by the time -- if I take a week off by the time I've sort of eased down from the pace of life I'm already starting to think about going back before the -- and it eats up the whole week. Whereas this time we took two weeks off and, you know, it was great because, you know, a few days you're kind of away from work. And then you've got, you know, a good six, seven, eight days of not thinking about it before you mentally are starting to prepare to come back.

  • 13:31:12

    ROBERTSI think also if you've got more time it makes you a little bit more ambitious about how far afield you're willing to go, a longer flight, you know, a jetlag that might take you a little longer to get over or a place that...

  • 13:31:21

    ROSSYeah, Iceland's a bit of a schlep for a week.

  • 13:31:23

    ROBERTSYeah, but, I mean, good for him for taking an ambitious trip to a place that's going to take a little while to settle into, and save the three-day weekend for going to Manhattan, right?

  • 13:31:32

    ROSSYeah. One quick other point about this and that is that it's stunning how few Americans leave the country. I mean, I don't know what the numbers are now but I think it's something like less than 10 percent have really gone anywhere other than Canada or Mexico over the last, you know, ten years. And, you know, the world is an amazing place and yet we have such a limited view. And that affects us in more ways than simply sightseeing. It affects our view of the world when we talk about what kind of a country we are without having any sense of comparison about what other countries are like.

  • 13:31:59

    ROBERTSLet's take a call from Laura in Columbia, Md. Laura, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:32:03

    LAURAThank you. I was saying that I got married about 18 years ago. My husband wasn't used to taking vacations. He would tack a day or two on with a business trip. But I told him I believe in three minors, the three to four days and one major seven to ten days minimum. And he found out that I was going to do it with or without him.

  • 13:32:27

    LAURASo over the years, I've gotten him into -- he started with like one week, but now we take two weeks together. And we do it -- we go out of the country or we do a cross country trip. But I was determined I was going to get that break with or without him.

  • 13:32:44

    ROBERTSWell, yeah, good for you for following up on the threat, too.

  • 13:32:48

    ROSSYes, exactly.

  • 13:32:49

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Stefan in Triangle, Va. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:32:54

    STEFANHi guys. I just had a question. What are the serious long term emotional, mental or physical effects of not getting the appropriate vacation time?

  • 13:33:06

    ROSSThat's great, Stefan. I mean, to think there are a number of things. I mean, from a physical standpoint obviously it's just simply burnout. You know, you just don't have the time to rest or relax, to take it easy, to sleep a little later, to recharge your batteries. There's a stress reaction that's there. Most of us in our work environments, you know, have a certain level of stress which in most cases -- in most American companies is a little bit beyond what's really healthy for us. We're pushing ourselves either through hours or the kind of pressure that's on us. And so we get a relaxation from that.

  • 13:33:38

    ROSSAnd then there's a mental -- the mental aspect of it as well, which is that when we don't break the rhythm of what we're thinking about constantly day after day after day we don't get a chance to sort of refresh our thinking to look outside of the box. So the combination of all of those are factors.

  • 13:33:52

    ROBERTSWe have strategy from Chris who says that in terms of shutting off email, he takes his vacations places he won't have network access, like the middle of the mountains.

  • 13:34:00

    ROSSThat'll do it.

  • 13:34:01

    ROBERTSHe says, "I tell all my clients well ahead of time that I'll be away and won't be able to respond 'til I get back. Generally, I find that when I tell them where I'm going, there isn't really any complaint.

  • 13:34:09

    ROSSYeah, there you go.

  • 13:34:11

    ROBERTSWe have a Tweet from Richard in Sweden who says he's an American. He's been living in Sweden for six years. He said, "I think I would opt for the American style of vacation rather than the European style. Productivity in Sweden and Europe is quite low because of vacation and time off."

  • 13:34:24

    ROSSWell, it's like I said before, I mean, I think it's -- you know, an old teacher of mine used to say, excuse the language, but being half ass is stupid whichever cheek you're looking at. I mean, we don't have to go one extreme or the other, you know. I mean, it is possible to find a nice mix between productive and restful. And where one contributes to the other, where our productivity allows us the time to take breaks and where the breaks that we take contributes to our productivity by keeping us healthier and more innovative, creative, etcetera.

  • 13:34:54

    ROBERTSWell, to that point here's an email who the emailer says, "I'm an American living in Ireland. I moved here a little over a year ago. While I haven't completely been able to deprogram my American mentality, I take exception to the comment that Europe doesn't produce. Americans' inability to take time off is producing a society where people don't have time for family or civic responsibility, volunteering, et cetera, et cetera. What are the other costs in health, democratic engagement, ignorance that you're not counting?"

  • 13:35:19

    ROSSYeah, exactly. I hope that he's not referring to my comment because I agree. I mean, I think -- what I was talking about is simply that we see only one kind of productivity. We don't see those other things valued, and I think that's exactly true. I mean, how much civic engagement comes from the fact that people have time to hang out on their porches at night to the degree that they do, or get involved in the community or walk to the local -- you know, in the case of Ireland, walk to the local pub? Or whatever it is to be there, to be with their family, to have the time to sit with their kids doing their homework, to have the time to spend time hanging out with our kids on vacation.?

  • 13:35:51

    ROSSAll these things make a contribution to society as well in addition to this notion of the results that we produce in a more sort of material framework.

  • 13:36:00

    ROBERTSLet's take a call from Ann in Washington. Anne, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:36:04

    ANNHi. Thanks for taking my call. This really strikes a chord with me because my husband and I have an independent business and, like everybody, have been hit by the economic downturn and, you know, are missing out, missing those vacations. And probably will be missing them for another year or so. But what I wanted to talk about was weekends. I've lived in Washington for 30 years and we have a grown teenager now.

  • 13:36:35

    ANNAnd what has always sort of shocked me in Washington is people work hard here, but they also have this really supercharged family life, too. I mean, it seems to be a badge of courage that you can say, I spent all day Saturday driving my kids around. And in my family, we don't do anything on the weekends. We won't even go to somebody's house on Sunday for dinner because that's sacrosanct. And I just -- you know, I've always found it very odd how busy people make themselves on the weekends here. It's kinda sad. I don't think -- I think family time, you know, really people miss out on a lot of family time.

  • 13:37:21

    ROSSWell, I think it's an extension of what we were talking about, Ann, in the sense it's become sort of cultural and we're now transferring it to our children, you know. And, I mean, I remember my most pleasant memories growing up were the time that we had after school. You'd hang out with your friends. Or during the summer, you know, you'd hop on your bike, you'd ride around the neighborhood. Maybe you'd go swimming. But you didn't have your time planned. You didn't go to camp all summer.

  • 13:37:42

    ROSSAnd now, you know, it's more likely that kids have three or four after-school activities that they have to -- now some of this is of course the fact that for working parents our school system is not wet up for working parents. You know, we still close school at 3:00 in the afternoon as if everybody's got mom, you know, June Cleaver waiting at home for her when there are so many working mothers. And so that is problematic. I want to note that.

  • 13:38:03

    ROSSBut for a lot of us, it's also we're afraid our kids are going to fall behind if they haven't taken music lessons and soccer and whatever the other things are they get filled in. And then during the summer it's the same thing. You know, how many camps can we line up for our kids so that they can, you know, learn what they have to do. And there's math camp and astronaut camp and...

  • 13:38:19

    ROBERTSOr even there was a column in the Post recently where a woman had decided to not schedule her kids and they had nothing to do 'cause all their friends were scheduled, you know.

  • 13:38:26

    ROSSYeah, that's right. Well, that's my point, it become a culture.

  • 13:38:28

    ANNYeah, I've experienced that, too.

  • 13:38:29

    ROSSThat's right, it's the culture. So you're absolutely right. I think we're generally -- as I've said a few times already in this show, that we're -- this is an overall cultural phenomenon that shows up in vacations but in all the other areas you're talking about as well.

  • 13:38:43

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Mathew in Arlington. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Matthew.

  • 13:38:48

    MATTHEWYeah, hi there. Yeah, growing up it was very important for my family to make sure that we always went on a trip somewhere. Later in life my father actually became a travel writer, so traveling has always been an important part. And my wife and I took a vacation down to Barbados a few years ago and unexpectedly we ended up buying a timeshare. And every year now we've got a two-week Thanksgiving vacation built in that has become our routine. And we bought it and I got back to work and I said to my boss, by the way, I'm going to be taking two weeks off at Thanksgiving for the rest of my life. He was cool with that.

  • 13:39:24

    MATTHEWAnd when we're on vacation I've been fortunate that I've got the kind of job that my job stays behind. So I'm thoroughly enjoying myself and immersed in the vacation, whereas my wife, who has a very, you know, important job that she has to maintain that email contact and things like that. But at least she's doing it on the beach and it's a good way to at least incorporate the vacation. She can still enjoy the vacation even though she has to incorporate a little bit of work into it. But traveling like that is very important to us.

  • 13:39:54

    MATTHEWAnd luckily for me, she does a lot of international travel. And I'll tack on -- I'll tag along and while she's working, I'm off enjoying the sights. So that's another way to at least enjoy some travel if work has to be involved.

  • 13:40:08

    ROSSYeah. This is important what you're speaking to Matthew. Structure creates behavior in our lives, and when we have structures set up that don't allow -- when you have a structure set up, it means that going on vacation requires a gargantuan task of finding a place and this other kind of stuff. If you're not the kind of person who's naturally oriented towards that, you'll generally slip back that the pattern of not doing it. If you create a structure for yourself by doing -- and a lot of people do that through timeshares or by having a beach house for the summer or things like this, then you kind of have committed to something. It pulls you in that direction, and sometimes that's what we need to break these old patterns.

  • 13:40:39


  • 13:40:40

    ROBERTSWe need to take a quick break. We are talking about taking vacation and how we do it without staying connected to work, if we do it at all. You can join us at 800-433-8850, or email us, We'll be right back.

  • 13:42:56

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. My guest is Howard Ross. He's the author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." He's also a principal at Cook Ross. And we are talking about the endangered summer vacation. How hard it is to take one, how hard it is to unplug once you do take one, and some strategies for making it a successful break.

  • 13:43:20

    ROBERTSYou can join us at 800-433-8850, or send us email, Howard, before the break, you were talking about how structure dictates behavior, and so if employers are not dictating that structure, if they're not saying get out the door at five o'clock, take your vacation, turn your handheld off, then it sort of becomes of burden of the employee to build in that structure, and can they be expected to do that?

  • 13:43:50

    ROSSWell, there are two things. Let's first talk about what employers can do, because I think it's so important, and it lives in a couple ways. I mean, one way is, you know, do you have vacation set up for people, are you giving people vacation time in your company. As you said earlier, we're not required to do that legally, but I think as a good employer, you know, people can dispute how much time people should get, and most employees would want more than they're given, but that's understandable.

  • 13:44:15

    ROSSSo there's that, but there's also the less formal ways we deal with vacation. For example, do we make it clear to people when they're leaving that we expect them to stay out of touch, that we expect them to take this time for themselves and for their families and that we're not requiring them to continue to work while they're away, and in fact, that we encourage them to not do that. We think it's healthier for them to take that time.

  • 13:44:33

    ROSSDo we tell people, look, you've got a back up of time, take your time. One of the things, interestingly, we can do as employers to help is it to tell people you can't keep leave over for years and years and years without special compensation. Now, if somebody wants to come and say look, I'd really like to take a, you know, a two month trip with my family, and so I'm not going to take vacation for the next couple years and save up my vacation, that's one thing. But for people who just keep -- are workaholics and keep moving, and then the other level is attitudinal.

  • 13:45:01

    ROSSHow do we treat people when -- oh, you're going on vacation, you know, the subtle things like that, or when they come back, boy, you know, here's a stack of things on your desk, or do we try as much as we can to help compensate so that when people come back they're not slammed between the eyes with all the stuff that's waiting for them to come back. So I think those are all really important. I think the other side of it is as employees that we need to create clear boundaries for ourselves, and -- with our employers, and I know that's hard for some people depending upon the nature of their job and how much, you know, how much leverage they actually have, but to the degree that we can, to make it clear to people that, you know, we really -- I'm going to be with my kids, we're going to be away.

  • 13:45:39

    ROSSI'm going to be with my family. I'm not going to have time to do a lot of things. If you need me to do something situationally, I can do one thing here or there, but I'm really not going to be able to do that, and ultimately we have to ask ourselves the question, can we be healthy being in or job, and as I said before, I'm very -- I say that being very sympathetic to the fact that some people don't have a lot of those choices, but for those of us who do have choices like that, to take a stand that this is something we need to build into our lives.

  • 13:46:02

    ROBERTSWe have an email from Susan who says, "We found that building at least one day at the end of vacation at home really helps with the reentry instead of pushing vacation to the very last minute." And boy am I with Susan.

  • 13:46:14


  • 13:46:14

    ROBERTSThe coming home on Saturday instead of Sunday and having a day to go to the grocery and do the laundry and all of that, it keeps you from being, you know, quite as stressed on Monday morning.

  • 13:46:22

    ROSSYeah. After having taken a red eye home from Hawaii on Saturday...

  • 13:46:25


  • 13:46:25

    ROSS...and we didn't get home until about three o'clock in the afternoon, and this morning I had this presentation, so I'm definitely with Susan on that.

  • 13:46:32

    ROBERTSWe have email from Aaron who says, "I had to turn the radio off because ironically I'm back at work. I just took three weeks off to travel across the country. This was perceived much differently from my fellow Washingtonian peers than those living across the country. I'm a young professional. I wanted to take advantage of what life has to offer at this point in my life, but I believe that although there isn't an argument for American versus European vacation philosophy, we Washingtonians need to look at our own work habits." He says, "By the way, I highly recommend it. Turn off email and phone service."

  • 13:47:01

    ROSSYeah. But Aaron is speaking to something which is my experience because I work all over the world, that in the same ways different countries have personalities, different cities have personalities, and you know, in New York the personality is kind of run, run, run, run, run. Here in DC, although it's sort of more work hard, play hard in New York.

  • 13:47:15


  • 13:47:16

    ROSSIn DC, our personality is significance.

  • 13:47:19

    ROBERTSRight. Being busy means I'm important.

  • 13:47:20

    ROSSBeing busy. And so self importance is a big part of our identity especially at the higher professional levels, and so this notion that you can leave for a couple of weeks or take time off, throws right in the face of that ego structure which says being important is important, and how important can I be if I tell people I'm talking weeks off? And so that's why managing it from the inside is such an important part of this conversation.

  • 13:47:42

    ROBERTSYeah. Whereas there might be another part of country they say you never take time off? Don't you have a life?

  • 13:47:46

    ROSSExactly. Exactly. What's the matter with you?

  • 13:47:48

    ROBERTSRight. Let's take a call from Amy in Leesburg. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Amy.

  • 13:47:55

    AMYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to let you know that for the last year I've worked for a health care organization, we provide health care to seniors, I'm a nurse. And I recently learned that in order to take a vacation, even one day, I have to give them six months notice, and at one of recent staff meetings it was announced that only two nurses can take off at any one time. So that makes it almost impossible to have any spontaneity at all, or take a long vacation because you're in competition with all these other people who also want to take time off.

  • 13:48:32

    AMYI think it says something about this company, and a lot of companies in the United States that make it difficult to take time off, because the focus is on productivity. Thank you.

  • 13:48:45

    ROSSYeah. And once again, this is an issue of balance. I mean it's obviously very difficult, if not impossible, to run a company thinking everybody can come in on Friday and say I'm going to take next week off, in one extreme. But on the other hand, when you get to the level where you're saying, you need to plan -- other than the long, you know, let's say somebody's going to take a month off or three weeks off or something, I can see where they're saying you need to give us plenty of notice for that, but it is -- it does put a crimp in when you've got to plan your spontaneity six months in advance as Amy is saying.

  • 13:49:09

    ROBERTSRight. Well is also underlines as you've been saying that these choices are the privilege of a, you know, select...

  • 13:49:16

    ROSSThat's right.

  • 13:49:16

    ROBERTS...percentage of workers in general.

  • 13:49:17

    ROSSThat's exactly right.

  • 13:49:19

    ROBERTSHere's a call from Mel in Fairfax, Va. Mel, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:49:24

    MELHello. Thank you for taking my call. I just am sort of amazed at how this is being approached. Quite lately this is become a very hostile work environment. You saw the combined effort to get rid of the union, and working in Virginia, they have a right-to-work law, which again for those very -- sort of pushes away or just gets rid of a lot of the, I guess, the things that the unions had worked for to get the employees.

  • 13:50:12

    MELAnd another thing is too, you have to remember that because the employer is cutting back on staff, a lot of us have the work of two or three people, and we -- if we go out on vacation, it's like two or three people are going on a vacation, not just the one person. I mean, I had this one co-worker, and they said that on a snow day that they were not going to close work, and everybody was expected to come in, and she went out and drove and had a really bad accident. I mean, she quit after she recovered, but, I mean, that's the kind of stuff that you're put under when you're thinking about taking vacation. Thank you very much.

  • 13:51:01

    ROBERTSThanks, Mel.

  • 13:51:02

    ROSSYeah. And Mel, you're speaking to something, another component of this which is the impact of vacation on people around us at work, and if we, you know, if as employers we're not being mindful of including in our notion of what productivity is, the notion people are going to be taking X number of days, we expect to keep running and running and running, and then what ends up happening is somebody takes a vacation and it becomes a penalty to everybody around them, rather than saying, no, this person is on vacation.

  • 13:51:27

    ROSSThere are certain things that are time sensitive that have to be taken care of, and the other things will wait until they get back. And if we recognize we're never going to get it all done anyway, then we can be a little bit or reasonable about that, and the certain things that have to be dealt with be dealt with, and the rest can wait.

  • 13:51:40

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Marie in Chicago. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Marie.

  • 13:51:44

    MARIEThank you. Well, I work at Orbitz, the travel website, and at Orbitz recognize that consumers are not taking their vacations. We came across a stat that only 57 percent of consumers take all their vacation days. So we actually launched an ad campaign a few months ago that had a tagline, take vacation back. And it's a rallying cry for, you know, to inspire travelers to take their vacation. They've earned them.

  • 13:52:08

    MARIEOne of our consumers actually told us, which was, you know, one of the inspirations for this campaign, they told us, if you don't, you know, use your vacation days, it's like paying your employer. So we just really think that, you know, consumers really should take -- it's all about, you know, taking the time you're owed from your employer, you know, and of course we're hoping you'll book a fly or hotel or Orbitz, you, you know, vacation doesn't have to be an expensive option.

  • 13:52:32

    MARIEI just -- I live right outside Chicago in the suburbs, and I just spent a few days in the city of Chicago, you know, at a hotel where I got a great deal on Orbitz, and was able to enjoy, you know, a week with my family that way.

  • 13:52:46

    ROBERTSYeah. Marie thanks for your call. The -- we've talked briefly about the sort of staycation, vacation in your own home town plan, which is more recession driven, but, you know, for those of who live in Washington, how many people have you heard have never actually been to the top of the Washington monument.

  • 13:53:00

    ROSSI know. It's more...

  • 13:53:01

    ROBERTSI mean, you can't go right now because of the earthquake, but...

  • 13:53:03

    ROSSOr the Shenandoah National Park.

  • 13:53:04


  • 13:53:05

    ROBERTSOr, you know, Skyline Drive. I mean, the beach, you know. We're only two hours, two and a half hours from the beach here. I mean, it's amazing the kind of places you can go around here and you can have a -- obviously people come -- one of the things that we love about doing these home exchanges, everybody always wants to come to Washington.

  • 13:53:20


  • 13:53:20

    ROSSThere are tons of things for people to do. I mean, how many people go down to see the monuments when they don't have a family member visiting, you know?

  • 13:53:25

    ROBERTSRight. Let's here from Brad in Washington DC. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," Brad.

  • 13:53:30

    BRADThank you. Great show. I run a small non-profit called the Congressional Management Foundation, so we're often trying to preach that message to our clients who are members of Congress and staff that they need to take time off, and one of the practicing that we employee even in our little non-profit is, after someone comes back from vacation, we always take the first five minutes of the next staff meeting and have them show us photos. ..

  • 13:53:51

    ROSSOh, that's great.

  • 13:53:51

    BRAD...from the vacation. And it just celebrates the vacation. The helps celebrates the idea that they're taking time off, and so we try to get rid of that stigma. Yeah. They've got a lot of work to come back to, but when you see those really cool pictures in Prague or Virginia Beach, it makes you feel a little better.

  • 13:54:07

    ROBERTSYeah. I mean, I guess that also cuts down on employees saying no, really, I'm going to Prague for a week when they're actually, you know, just sleeping late and eating cheese doodles in front of the TV.

  • 13:54:18

    ROSSThat's right. You get the -- that's like the old thing, what was it the Jetsons, the old show, you have a drop down in back of you so you can look like you're in some place fancy. But I do think that again, Brad's talking about some of the subtle things that we can do to increase -- I mean, we do -- we started the last couple years doing what we call summer Fridays in our office so that in addition to their normal vacation time, people can take a three-day weekend every other week, and then they just make up with flex time that time during the week.

  • 13:54:41

    ROSSSo it's, you know, and we coordinate it so that not everybody is gone on the same day. The things that we can do to get people out and enjoying themselves and enjoying their families and to encourage that, if we as employers value it, and realize that it contributes something.

  • 13:54:55

    ROBERTSYeah. And not only does it make for a happier work force, but it makes you more attractive if an employee is choosing among different jobs offers and all of that.

  • 13:55:02

    ROSSYeah. The other thing for people who are in power positions in organizations, whether your own or as a manager, or as a boss is to realize that we have a tendency to do our own projection, so that if we are compulsive workers and can't get away from work, we have to be careful that we don't then be resentful about people who take that time off, because it's natural for us to project externally. If we know how to relax and enjoy ourselves, we're much more likely to encourage other people to do the same.

  • 13:55:25

    ROBERTSLet's hear from Javier in Reston. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:55:28

    JAVIERThank you so much. We -- my wife and my son and I just got back from driving through southern Utah and Arizona and New Mexico and back up to Colorado. We flew to Denver, and then drove around in a big circle, and it was fascinating because, you know, we were trying to do things on a budget, go see (word?) National Park, Canyonlands, Bryce...

  • 13:55:53


  • 13:55:54

    JAVIER...Monument Valley. And, you know, we're seeing all of these, like iconic American, you know, parks and, you know, I was just sort of blown away, by the, you know, naturally beauty of it. But was fascinated me was we heard almost no English the entire time that we were visiting the parks. French was the primary language that everyone was speaking. There was German, a smattering of Italian, but it blew me away that, you know, very few Americans were taking part of the, you know, of this national park system that we've got, and I, you know, I just wondered, you know, if that was just, you know, part of, you know, what we just saw, you know a slice of what actually happens, but clearly Europeans were enjoying, you know, our lovely national parks, and I just, you know, I thought that was kind of an interesting thing.

  • 13:56:38

    ROBERTSAnd Javier, were the parks crowded?

  • 13:56:40

    JAVIERAbsolutely. Just, I mean, we had a difficult time finding rooms anywhere, finding lodging. A lot of tours that were -- there's very specific tours in some of the parks that we couldn't enjoy because they, you know, they were already so crowded.

  • 13:56:55

    ROBERTSThank you so much for your call. So we're running out of time here, Howard, but so having just come back from Hawaii where you really did turn everything off, would you recommend it?

  • 13:57:04

    ROSSOh, turning everything off or Hawaii, or both?

  • 13:57:05


  • 13:57:06

    ROSSBoth. Oh, absolutely, both. You know, it was gorgeous. We were in Kauai and it was just gorgeous, and it's a little quieter than Oahu, you know, and so it's great. But I think turning stuff off is really important, and if you can't do it yet, then start preparing people to do it. So check in, you know, every other day at first, and then every third day, and every fourth day, and then every fifth day, and I think for -- in general as a boss, I think we have to ask ourselves the question for anything we do, can somebody else be doing it, and if nobody can be doing it, then how do we prepare somebody else for doing it, and if nobody's ready to prepare, then how can we start preparing somebody to preparing them. So -- because ultimately that's how we leverage ourselves more anyway within our organizations.

  • 13:57:44

    ROBERTSThat is Howard Ross, author of "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance." He's also a principal at Cook Ross. Always a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here.

  • 13:57:53

    ROSSRebecca, it's fun to see you again.

  • 13:57:55

    ROBERTSI'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks so much for listening.

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