There’s a reason the United States has been dubbed the “no-vacation nation.”1 On average, Americans get far less paid time off than workers in other countries. In fact, the U.S. is one of few countries2 – and the only developed country3 – in the world that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation days. This includes Japan, which originated the concept of
karōshi, which literally means death from overwork (more on that later).4
While many employers do provide some paid days off each year, it is estimated that 25% of Americans5 get no paid vacation days or holidays. Of those who do get paid vacation, many are not taking it. In 2018, 55% of American workers6 did not use their paid time off, leaving a staggering 768 million7 paid vacation days on the table.
Time off is vital to lawyer well-being. Although there has been an increased focus on self-care since the pandemic began in 2020, there’s more to it than that. As explained below, taking vacation time improves people’s mental and physical health, results in better job performance, can set up people for career success, and gives full value to workers’ pay and benefits packages.
The Benefits of Using Vacation Time
Members of the legal profession are part of the lucky bunch of American workers who do get paid-vacation days – you would be hard-pressed to find any lawyer job in this country that doesn’t provide paid vacation. Many lawyers, however, don’t use that time, often because they feel they either cannot or should not, given the pressures and demands of the job. And, in my experience of working with and coaching lawyers, even if they do take time off, they end up working during their vacation.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of vacation time as a luxury or a chance for pampering, but that misses the point. Using vacation time doesn’t have to mean jetting off to Europe (though it’s great to do so if you can). Using vacation time means exactly that – taking advantage of the paid days off you are given as part of your compensation package. What you do with them doesn’t even matter. What matters is that the break from work helps your mental and physical well-being.
On the mental health side, the American Psychological Association (APA)8 has found that taking even a short vacation reduces depression, anxiety, and stress by removing people from the environments that frequently cause or contribute to these conditions. The APA cites a Canadian study that focused specifically on lawyers and found that vacations lowered depression and helped participants better cope with job stress.
Using time off has also been shown to make people feel more stimulated and present9 in their lives. In fact, vacations and meditation appear to have a similar effect10 on the brain in terms of increasing mindfulness.
Vacation offers significant benefits on the physical side as well. The World Health Organization (WHO)11 found that in 2016, 745,000 people died from heart disease and strokes attributable to working long hours, and WHO expects the numbers during the pandemic to be even worse. Indeed, the concept of karōshi is no longer a uniquely Japanese phenomenon and is now recognized as a global problem.12 Using vacation time has been shown to improve both heart health and sleep,13 which can help to stave off other mental and physical issues.
Simply put, using vacation is not merely a matter of pleasure but one of survival. Reaping the benefits of vacation is arguably more important for lawyers now than ever, given that legal professionals are reporting that the pandemic has worsened mental health issues.14 Currently, though, the opposite is happening – since March 2020, a majority of U.S. workers have shortened, postponed, or canceled15 vacations.
The Impact of Vacation on Work Quality and Career Prospects
Taking vacation not only helps mentally, physically, and financially; it also can make people better at their jobs and contribute to overall career success. For a variety of reasons, many lawyers believe that the more they work, the more successful they’ll be. Under that notion, taking vacation seems at odds with success.
In reality, however, the opposite has been shown to be true. Indeed, people who take vacation are
more likely16 to receive raises or get promoted. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that downtime during a vacation improves a person’s brain functioning and ability to perform in several ways.
First, assuming you’re taking advantage of your time off (in other words, not going on a stressful trip or working), your energy and general outlook17 will be much improved when you return to work. Positive brain activity correlates to a significant increase in productivity.18 Taking time off has also been shown to improve capacity to learn.19
In contrast is presenteeism,20 which is the loss of productivity that happens when a person is physically at work but not functioning up to full ability. Refusing to take time off will prevent the positive recovery effects listed above, inevitably decreasing productivity and efficiency and increasing the likelihood of committing errors – none of which are things that bode well for long-term career success. Additionally, if all you ever do is work, you won’t keep performing better in perpetuity, because the law of diminishing returns21 will eventually kick in.
It appears that some law firms have started to catch on to the importance of vacation for their employees, whether for personal or business reasons. In fact, some U.S.-based law firms are now offering hard-working lawyers financial incentives of one kind or another that encourage vacations.
Goodwin Procter introduced a “Recharge on Goodwin”22 program: The firm allows associates who have hit certain billable-hour targets to choose from a selection of curated week-long trips or work with a travel agent to plan a vacation, all paid for by the firm. Orrick is now allowing associates to count 40 hours of vacation time23 toward bonus-eligibility billable-hour targets. Finally, Fenwick & West has given extra bonuses24 to its highest billers, explicitly encouraging them to be used for “Triple R”: rest, recreation, and relaxation. Meanwhile, the managing partner of Mayer Brown’s London office recently instructed firm partners to not interrupt associates’ vacations25 with work requests.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of vacation time as a luxury or a chance for pampering, but that misses the point. What matters is that the break from work helps your mental and physical well-being.
The Monetary Cost of the American Vacation Problem
Would you do your job for free? Very few people in this world would answer yes to that question in any job, and it’s a reasonable assumption that the response from the legal industry would be a resounding no.
Nonetheless, Americans are doing this by failing to use their vacation time. Of those 768 million26 paid vacation days American workers did not take in 2018, 236 million27 were forfeited entirely and not rolled over for future use. Monetarily, that equated to $65.5 billion in lost benefits.28 If Americans are taking less vacation time since the pandemic started, that means they’re leaving even more money on the table.
You probably don’t give much thought to how you use other job benefits. For example, few people would pay out of pocket for a medical treatment covered by their employer-sponsored health insurance. In fact, employer-sponsored health insurance is coveted in this country, so much so that it is a major factor29 in whether employees choose to stay at jobs.
Using vacation days and other paid time off should be the same. Paid time off is part of benefits packages, which are just as much a part of overall compensation as is salary. People who have paid time off but are not using it are surrendering part of their compensation and, in effect, working for free several days every year.
If you’re thinking of forgoing your vacation this year or you’re one of those people who can’t remember the last time they actually took a vacation, it’s not too late to change your mind. Doing so will improve the quality of both your life and your work.
And if you want to take a vacation simply as an act of self-care, that’s fine, too – I won’t tell anyone.
WisLAP Can Help
Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) offers confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families who are suffering from alcoholism, substance abuse, anxiety, and other issues that affect their well-being and law practice.
24 hour helpline: (800) 543-2625
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255);
» Cite this article:
95 Wis. Law. 43-45 (September 2022).
1 Adewale Maye, CEPR,
No-Vacation Nation, Revised (May 2019),
2 World Pol’y Analysis Ctr.,
Global Map – Is Paid Annual Leave Available to Workers?
https://www.worldpolicycenter.org/policies/is-paid-annual-leave-available-to-workers (last visited July 29, 2022).
supra note 1.
4 Colin Marshall,
Dying from Overwork: Disturbing Looks Inside Japan’s Karoshi and China’s “996” Work System, Open Culture (June 2, 2022),
5 Katharina Buchholz,
The Time Off Work Employees Are Entitled To, statista (Jan. 27, 2022),
6 U.S. Travel Ass’n,
Paid Time Off Trends in the U.S.,
https://tinyurl.com/2p92az3y (last visited July 29, 2022).
7 U.S. Travel Ass’n,
Study: A Record 768 Million U.S. Vacation Days Went Unused in ’18, Opportunity Cost in Billions (Aug. 16, 2019),
8 Andrea Robinson,
Four Reasons to Take a Vacation, Psychopharmacology & Substance Abuse Newsletter (July 2017),
9 Caroline Castrillon,
Why Taking Vacation Time Could Save Your Life, Forbes (May 23, 2021),
www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/05/23/why-taking-vacation-time-could-save-your-life/?sh=3f1a8a7b24de (behind paywall for some users).
10 Christopher J. May et al.,
The Relative Impact of 15-minutes of Meditation Compared to a Day of Vacation in Daily Life: An Exploratory Analysis, J. Positive Psych. Vol. 15, issue 2 (2020),
Long Working Hours Killing 745,000 People a Year, Study Finds (May 17, 2021),
12 Elle Hunt,
Japan’s Karoshi Culture Was a Warning. We Didn’t Listen, Wired (Feb. 6, 2021),
supra note 9.
14 Dylan Jackson,
Legal Professionals Were Already Struggling With Stress and Isolation, and the Pandemic Has Made Things Much Worse, The American Lawyer (May 3, 2021),
supra note 9.
16 Shawn Achor,
Are the People Who Take Vacations the Ones Who Get Promoted, Harv. Bus. Rev. (June 12, 2015),
https://hbr.org/2015/06/are-the-people-who-take-vacations-the-ones-who-get-promoted (behind paywall for some users).
17 Shawn Achor & Michelle Gielan,
The Data Driven Case for Vacation, Harv. Bus. Rev. (July 13, 2016),
https://hbr.org/2016/07/the-data-driven-case-for-vacation (behind paywall for some users).
18 Are the People Who Take Vacations,
supra note 16.
supra note 9.
20 Paul Hemp, Presenteeism: At Work But Out of It, Harv. Bus. Rev. (October 2004),
21 Jeremy McCarthy,
The Law of Diminishing Returns, Applied, The Psychology of Wellbeing (Jan. 3, 2017),
22 Kathryn Rubino,
Biglaw Firm to Pick Up the Tab for Your Next Vacay, Above the Law (Jan. 24, 2022),
23 Staci Zaretsky,
Top 50 Biglaw Firm Rolls Out Incredible Bonus-Eligible Time-Off Policy, Above the Law (March 18, 2021),
24 Joe Patrice,
Market Bonuses With Extra Money Earmarked for Lawyers Who Really Need a Vacation, Above the Law (Dec. 17, 2021),
25 Staci Zaretsky,
Top 50 Biglaw Firm Tells Partners Not to Interrupt Associate Vacations With Work Demands, Above the Law (June 10, 2022),
26 U.S. Travel Ass’n,
supra note 7.
27 U.S. Travel Ass’n,
More Time Off, Less Time Used,
www.ustravel.org/sites/default/files/media_root/document/NPVD19_FactSheet.pdf (last visited July 29, 2022).
29 Valerie Bolden-Barrett,
Health Coverage the Biggest Reason for Staying at Current Job, 56% of Employees Say, HR Dive (Feb. 8, 2018),
» Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 43-45 (Sept. 2022).