The first hint of summer mayhem came in June, with the arrival of an e-mail. I was trying to schedule a meeting at work and had just pressed send when my computer pinged a bit too quickly with a new message: an auto-reply saying that the person I urgently needed to talk to for my project was out. A week later, he was back, but by then whatever I’d needed to talk to him about had disappeared in a summer haze, and I’d moved on to a different part of the project in his absence. Two weeks later, the person I was working with on that part of the project bounded out of the office for her vacation. By the time she got back, the entire office was about to shut down for two days over the Fourth of July holiday, which meant everyone had pretty much stopped paying attention to things on or about July 2. When we all got back to work, it took a day or two to remember what we’d been doing before we left. And so it has been all summer.
For most of the season, work has dribbled along at the pace of a slowly melting popsicle, as though no one really wants to work on a hot summer day, which — let’s face it — no one does. E-mails lounge around in inboxes waiting for someone to answer them, phone calls get returned days or even a week later and every conference call begins with a recounting of someone’s recently completed or about-to-be-taken trips to the beach, romps through Italy or morose staycations.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In the United States, we tend to spread out our holidays from as early as Memorial Day all the way through Labor Day, which makes getting anything done over the summer feel like a long slog in a wet bathing suit. But in other countries, there is consensus on the month one goes on vacation: in Argentina, it’s January; in New Zealand, it’s December; throughout most of Europe, it’s August. It’s time that Americans, too, stop pretending that any work is getting done in the summer, and just agree to take August off.
Although we may not have the mandatory vacation laws that allow other countries the luxury of a month-long work detox, if we could at least all agree to close up shop for a small portion of August, it would mean more efficient work when we’re in the office, and more relaxing vacations when we’re out. I’m not alone on this — Robert Reich, an economist and former labor secretary, has argued for nationally mandated longer vacations, which, he says, can lead not only to better health but more productive workers. He points out that Germany, one of the strongest economies in Europe, requires business to provide workers with four weeks of paid vacation a year. Just think: We’ll all get to shove our phones and laptops into the back of a dark closet each August while simultaneously boosting the economy.
There’s vague agreement across the country that one should take some time off in the summer (the vast majority of us planned to take a summer vacation last year, according to an Orbitz survey). The higher up the food chain you are, the more likely you are to leave town when it gets hot, which means that throughout June, July and August, everyone’s boss is out of the office, and most meetings end with someone saying, “Let’s find out what [insert boss’s name here] thinks when he/she gets back.” But imagine a world where no one has to say that, because all of our offices are closed for two blissful weeks.
Our uncoordinated vacations aren’t doing us any favors when it comes to decompressing, either. Because most companies at least maintain the veneer of normal functions throughout the summer despite the large number of people who may be out of the office at any given moment, it’s hard to relax on vacation when you know things are grinding on at work without you. It’s not surprising, then, that 61 percent of respondents in a 2013 Harris Interactive survey said they planned to work during their summer vacation, thereby nullifying any of the positive benefits of being away.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Last summer, I spent most of August in rural France, and because I’m an American, I worked two out of my three weeks there. But that contrasted sharply with how seriously the French take summer vacation. While I checked e-mail at a vineyard and Skyped with co-workers between bites of cheese, the vast majority of the small town I was in closed up shop and went elsewhere. Two of the three bakeries were shuttered. Restaurants had little signs taped to their doors announcing they were en vacances. Because I was ostensibly on vacation, I thought I’d treat myself to a little paid housecleaning, but when I called around, I was told the woman in town who usually cleaned the house was spending her August in the south of France.
At least one U.S. company is leading the charge toward a unified vacation date. For the past six years, TED — the organization responsible for running those talks — has shut down for the first two weeks of August. A statement on the company’s Web site says employees are required to take a mandatory vacation during those dates, along with a message from June Cohen, TED’s executive producer, explaining the policy.
“It’s efficient,” she says. “In most companies, people stagger their vacations through the summer. But this means you can never quite get things done all summer long. You never have all the right people in the room.”
I would have called to ask her to elaborate, but she’s on vacation.