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vacation (n.) late 14c., “freedom from obligations, leisure, release (from some activity or occupation), . . . from Latin . . . past participle stem of vacare “be empty.” [emphasis added] (Online Etymology Dictionary 2014).

Vacation time empty of work is a life & death issue                          (de Bloom 2011: 1607).

After the close of traditional summer holiday time, this blog post on the need for significant blocks of vacation time away from work to sustain  museum workers’ health, sanity, & creativity might seem to be too late.  On the other hand, summer is high season for many museums, so front line staff often escape work at other times of the year.

Importance of Vacations for Well-Being:

The crucial significance of vacation from work for maintaining well-being is summarised by Jessica de Bloom (2011: 1606), a post-doc researcher at the University of Tampere (Finland):

Research in occupational health psychology has consistently demonstrated the adverse impact of stress in the workplace on individuals’ health and well-being (H&W) (e.g. [2 studies not consulted here cited from 2004]). Meanwhile, the great importance of recovery during non-work time to protect workers against the adverse effects of job stressors is increasingly acknowledged ([3 studies not consulted here cited from 2005-2009]).

Counter-intuitively, it turns out that fully a quarter of Canadians–museum workers among them–plan not to take the full amount of vacation time owed to them in 2014.  This is according to research reported in the 18 June 2014 The Globe & Mail (Chan 2014: B17).  This study was rather small, but it matches a larger pool of supporting evidence.

Ten years ago, a major study of workers in the UK by London-based think tank Demos found that fully 56% did not take all of their vacation time (Bunting 2004: 10).  This finding is particularly surprising because the UK used to be disparagingly diagnosed with “the British Disease” of “tea-breakism” (Bunting 2014: 29).  As Madeleine Bunting, Guardian columnist and Director of the Demos think-tank, suggests in her book titled Willing Slaves, in the second millennium A.D., UK workers–like many others in the world–are willingly choosing serfdom.  They tie themselves more & more tightly to their work–for some, seemingly inescapably so.

In his important recent book on treating workplace stress Is Work Killing You?, Dr. David Posen reports that Canadian workers abandon 34 million of their vacation days.  In the United States, a stunning 436 million paid vacation days remain unused (Posen 2013: 299).  An April 2014 study of 2,719 U.S. consumers conducted by Travel Leaders Group–a $20 billion powerhouse in the travel industry–found that fully 38.5% of its respondents will leave vacation days on the table (PR Newswire 2014).  This is from respondents who are inclined to take vacations in the first place!

To deliberately misquote William Wordsworth here, surely, ‘The work is too much with us, late and soon. . . We have given our hearts away,  a sordid boon! . . . For this, for everything, we are out of tune.’

Vacation Got

Figure 1. The Take Back Your Time (2009) web site on its Resources page states: “The U.S. has the longest working hours in the industrial world. The average European puts in nine fewer weeks on the job each year than Americans do. While the Chinese have a mandated three weeks of paid leave, Australians four, and Europeans 4 to 5 weeks, the U.S. has no minimum paid leave law.” {1}

Vacation Neglect Dangerous

De Bloom (2011: 1607) reports on the potential for serious consequences of failing to take vacations from work (cf. Burke 2009: 167; De Graaf 2003: 78-90):

Vacation as a long and relatively uninterrupted period of absence from work is a prime candidate for helping employees to recover more completely from work than during shorter respite intervals like evening hours or weekends (e.g. [2 studies not consulted here cited 2001 & 2003]). Earlier vacation studies demonstrated a positive effect of a vacation from work, i.e. workers’ H&W substantially improved during a vacation compared to work periods before vacation (e.g. [3 studies not consulted here cited 2001-2011]). Indeed, a longitudinal study by [authors of a study not consulted here (2000)] even showed that not taking annual vacations was associated with a higher risk of mortality during a 9-year period [emphasis added].

In their study of museum workers, Kahn & Garden (1994: 194) report that unaddressed stress in museum workplaces produces both mental & physical ill-health as well as related problems such as substance abuse.

Johnson (2009:7) cites Westman’s (1997) co-author:

Dov Eden, Ph.D., also of Tel Aviv University, stated in an article in Medical News Today that employees who take a complete break from work benefit the most from a vacation and are less likely to experience burnout. But we must truly empty ourselves [emphasis added], as Dr. Eden also indicates that those who are unable to take a complete break from work while away on vacation are not likely to recover from the negative effects of chronic job stress, which can bring on chronic disease.

Why do museum and other workers abandon vacation days that may well help avoid unrelenting workplace stress & its ill effects? Forty percent of the workers polled in the recent Canadian study blame the “fear of work piling up” for passing up vacation time (Chan 2014: B17). Institutional workplace culture & collegial pressures also often besmirch vacationers as productivity “saboteurs” (Joe Robinson 2003: 22-23).

Dr. David Posen (2013: 127), who has treated overloaded & stressed-out workers for more than 25 years, indicates that some put off vacations because of the hassle of getting ready to be away from work and the related stresses.

Your blogger also has suffered from my own “pre-vacation angst,” i.e. the fear of falling even further behind when a full desk load of incomplete tasks remains before holidays begin.  I worried that time off  from my museum would simply result in a much deeper pile of work upon my return.  I personally have contributed my share of days to the unfortunate accumulations of unused vacation time.

To counter this Post-Modern tendency, Bunting (2004:  xxvi) argues that “we need to challenge the centrality of work in our lives . . . [&] question the way work is organised.” Growing “work intensification” (Bunting 2004: 28) results from the rapidly increasing volume & velocity of work (Posen 2013: 37-38).  Your blogger believes that rising–yet unresourced–expectations in the Post-Modern world of work–especially that in the museum field–are a significant cause of this counterproductive trend (Thistle 2017: 1-2, 5 passim; cf. Posen 2013: 109)

Modern workplaces are indeed making people sick (Posen 2013: 2 ff.).  It is crucial to recognise here that museums have an ethical responsibility to protect their human resources (American Association of Museums 2000: 2; International Council on Museums 2006: 1).  I maintain that such protection must include shielding museum workers from exploitation by overwork expectations and its ill effects (Thistle 2014).

Vacation DepressionSolutions: Vacation–Just Do It!

Vacations do help to sustain good health & result in reduced absenteeism, job stress, and burnout (Westman & Eden 1997: 526 passim; Tim Robinson 2006: 6; Posen 2013: 7). A minimum of 3 full weeks not broken up in short chunks is recommended for the achievement of fuller well-being at work (Kasser & Kennon 2009: 253).

It must be noted however that de Bloom (2011 :1606, 1607, 1614-15) reports “a small group experienced no (23%) or a negative effect of vacation (17%)” & also that the positive after effects  in worker H&W last only a relatively short period of ca. 2 weeks (cf. Westman & Eden 1997: 516, 524).

In this regard however, your blogger would hypothesise that the short length of positive vacation effect is attributable to the persistence of the underlying fundamental problems of chronic work intensification (Bunting 2004:187-8) & resulting task saturation that is due in large measure to constantly rising, yet unresourced, expectations (Thistle 2017: 1-2, 5 passim). These are evidenced by the increased volume & velocity of work coupled with what Posen (2013: 38) has observed to be uncaring abuse of workers by managers.  The outcomes of lack of time balance, work-life conflict, & stress returning so quickly after vacations places even more urgency on solving the deep-rooted problems of rising expectations & task saturation.

The web site Take Back Your Time (2009) associated with John De Graaf’s (2003) seminal book of the same name makes the case for job performance improvement after vacation time. Museum & other workers who believe that sacrificing their vacation time under the assumption that this will be of ultimate benefit to their institution are misguided. Posen (2013: 79-80, 86, 89, 91) presents convincing arguments concerning increased creativity & productivity. Less overwork in fact is more productive (Posen 2013: 96).

Managers do need to plan vacation schedules well in advance & ensure that holidays do not overlap (Chan 1014: B17).  It is crucial to plan institution-wide vacation schedules carefully to avoid the more intense labour demand periods.{2}

Some employers have policies that require vacation time be used only in the applicable calendar year.  There is danger in my view if such a policy includes a provision for being paid out for unused vacation time.  Vacation time must be for use to empty one’s life of work, not in order for the staff person to work longer than contractually obligated.

While on vacation, do not follow the example of 49% of the respondents to the Travel Leaders Group (PR Newswire 2014) survey who intend to check work e-mail & voice mail while on holiday.  If you go on vacation, Just Do It! Turn your smart phone off!  See the previous Smartphones & Unpaid Overtime blog post.   Remember that the word “vacation” derives it meaning ultimately from the Latin for “empty.”  When on holiday and you are tempted to check work messages electronically, immediately say to yourself ‘get thee behind me Satan.’

Vacations also are valuable to assist in repairing family well-being resulting from the stresses experienced under work-life conflict (Posen 2013: 35-36, 66, 69, 174, 184-89; Shaw et al. 2009; Higgins et al. 2007: 31, 184-189, 194).

Vacation FamilyMy final advice to followers of this blog is: don’t neglect your own best interests by giving up your vacation time for your museum job.  Empty your life of work for an extended period at least once a year–for the sake of your own well-being, that of your family, & social life–not to mention your own productivity at work.


{1} See Take Back Your Time web site “Why should you care about paid vacation legislation?” page at http://timeday.org/takebackyourtime/organizing-take-back-your-time-day-in-your-community/ .

{2} In my own work history, a museum manager overlooked a temporary exhibition changeover schedule & approved vacations for my only curatorial department colleague & another museum staff member from another department who wanted to holiday together (amounting to 29% of the F-T workforce).  The upshot for me was the need to work 12 to 16 hours for 32 days in a row.  Even under the short-staff circumstances, my museum manager was adamant that the existing temporary exhibition curated by my vacationing colleague must be taken down & my own new exhibition must be installed on schedule. Opening late was sternly ruled out.  I have argued elsewhere that this kind of unrealistic–if not uncaring–expectation that seems to be increasingly characteristic in the museum field is unethical if not illegal (Thistle 2014).

References Cited:

American Association of Museums. 2000. Code of Ethics for Museums. Washington: American Association of Museums.

Bunting, Madeleine. 2004. Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives.  London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Burke, Ronald J. 2009. “Working to Live or Living to Work: Should Individuals and Organizations Care?” Journal of Business Ethics 84: 167-72.

Chan, Stephanie. 2014. “Many Canadians reluctant to take off on vacation.” The Globe & Mail Report on Business print edition B17 18 June http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/life-at-work/many-workers-reluctant-to-take-off-on-vacation/article19190390/ (accessed 18 June 2014).

de Bloom, Jessica et al. 2011. “How does a vacation from work affect employee health and well-being?” Psychology and Health 26 no. 12: 1606-1622.

de Bloom, Jessica et al. 2010. “Vacation from work as prototypical recovery opportunity.” Gedrag & Organisatie 23, nr. 4: 333-349.

de Graaf, John. 2003. Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

International Council of Museums. 2006. ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris: ICOM.

Johnson, Jennifer. 2009. “The Value of a Vacation” New Life Journal June: 6-7.

Kahn, Howard and Sally Garden. 1994 (original 1993). “Job attitudes and occupational stress in the United Kingdom museum sector.” In Museum Management ed. Kevin Moore. New York: Routledge.

Higgins, Chris, Duxbury, Linda, & Lyons, Sean. 2007. Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t. Report 5. Ottawa: Health Canada.

Kasser, Tim & Kennon, Sheldon. 2009. “Time Affluence as Business Practice: Evidence From Four Studies” Journal of Business Ethics 84 (Supplement 2): 243-255.

Online Etymology Dictionary. 2014 “Vacation.” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=vacation (accessed 22 July 2014).

Posen, David. 2013. Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.

PR News Wire. 2014. “Nearly half of Americans polled “check in” at work while on vacation according to new Travel Leaders Group survey.” Consumer Health Complete 2 June http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cmh&AN=201406021152PR.NEWS.USPR.CG39947&site=chc-live (accessed 22 July 2014).

Robinson, Joe. 2003. “The Incredible Shrinking Vacation” in De Graaf, John ed. 2003. Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler [see book outline at http://timeday.org/btbyt.asp (accessed 15 July 2014].

Robinson, Tim. 2006. Work Leisure and the Environment: The Vicious Circle of Overwork and Over Consumption. Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

Shaw, Sue et al. 2009. “Family Vacation(s). . .” Seven videos that were part of the Vacation Matters Summit, Seattle University, August http://www.youtube.com/user/TakeBackYourTime (accessed 1 October 2014).

Take Back Your Time. 2009. Resources. Take Back Your Time: A Global Initiative to Challenge the Epidemic of Overwork  http://timeday.org/takebackyourtime/resources/ (accessed 15 July 2014).

Thistle, Paul C. 2014. “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation” presented at the Canadian Museums Association Annual Conference, Toronto, ON, 9 April 2014 https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/museum-worker-overload-the-ethics-of-exploitation-final-final-project.pptx (accessed 7 October 2014).

Thistle, Paul C. 2017. “Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog at Fully Loaded Camels 2017 (accessed 21 August 2017).

Westman, M. & Eden, D. 1997. “Effects of a Respite From Work on Burnout: Vacation Relief and Fade-Out.” Journal of Applied Psychology 82 no. 4: 516-527.