Christmas is a time for traditions and certain corners of the US media have not let down those who celebrate it. The “War on Christmas” headlines have returned this month, unpacked like the baubles, nutcrackers and shelvable elves that had been hidden away in the nation’s lofts since January.
The umbrage of a vocal minority infuriated by the ecumenical greeting “happy holidays” can make it seem that the US leads the world in fighting about holidays. But this seasonal twist on the culture wars is missing a bigger point: when it comes to fighting for holidays, or vacations, as most Americans call them, the country is scandalously behind the rest of the world.
The US stands alone among OECD nations in having no minimum statutory amount of annual paid leave. Granted, not all large economies guarantee the five weeks a year off that full-time workers can expect in France. But four weeks is standard in the UK and under the EU’s Working Time Directive; Japan and Canada insist on two weeks or more; and even Mexico requires at least six days, the OECD’s tally shows.
(The Paris-based organisation has itself shown Gallic leadership on this matter, offering staff 30 days plus French public holidays and the last week of each year, when its office closes.)
There is statutory leave and then of course there is actual leave — the time off agreed between employer and employee, sometimes with a union in between. Even by this measure, though, the US trails behind global peers, with an average employee enjoying just 10 vacation days and six public holidays, a 2019 report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research found. As so often, America’s lowest-wage workers typically miss out on even those paltry average benefits.
To put that figure in context, just 9 per cent of US workers get four weeks or more of paid annual vacation after their first year with an employer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even those who stay with the same employer for 20 years or more have only a one in four chance of getting the five weeks that is the baseline in France.
These discrepancies are not new, so why should America’s anomalous aversion to holidays matter now? In short, because any hope of narrowing this gap between the US and the rest of the world has been forgotten in the great rethink of working practices that has followed Covid-19.
Work-related stress, depression and anxiety surged during the pandemic. In a tight labour market, businesses are scrambling to improve their employees’ fragile mental health. But the mental health days, meditation apps and four-day weeks that human resources teams are experimenting with in response are inadequate weapons with which to fight burnout or stop the “great resignation” in which workers are leaving or cutting their hours.
The US surgeon general is now advising employers to “enable adequate rest” and “increase access to paid leave” to support the mental health of their workforce.
Society for Human Resource Management polling suggests that US employees value leave more highly than they do any other benefit bar health insurance and pensions. Plenty of other research suggests that a real vacation is good for everything from your heart to your productivity. The US Travel Association has warned about the economic impact on its industry of Americans not getting enough holiday and not taking all the leave they are entitled to.
There are reasons to hope that such arguments might be heard now. Paid time off is rising up the labour agenda after a pandemic which — briefly — prompted many companies to offer more paid sick leave.
In recent weeks, unionised workers threatened to bring the country’s rail network to a halt because a proposed agreement with their employers included no paid sick leave. Delta Air Lines has joined a growing list of companies offering more generous parental leave.
Yet holidays — those restorative weeks uninterrupted by work, illness or a new baby — are still rarely on the negotiating table. It is time for that to change, and the conditions might now be ripe to do so. As economists warn of a possible recession, few businesses are offering pay rises to match this year’s decades-high inflation rates; that could make this the best moment in years for workers to ask for a less costly benefit.
Employers who claim to take their underlings’ mental health seriously should take a hard look at how often they let their people escape the workplace for more than a few days at a time, and remember that paid leave is not just for Christmas.
Happy holidays, America. It is time to ask for more of them.