The Ethics of Taking Vacations

You owe it to yourself to recuperate, and you'll do your job better if you take time off. Both are ethical issues

Which of the following statements is most accurate for you?

A) I receive 15 days of paid vacation each year, and I take them—guilt-free.

B) I receive 15 days of paid vacation each year, but I feel guilty if I take them.

C) I haven't had a vacation in years. I'm loyal to my company or business and am proud of this fact.

D) I work for myself and don't take vacations. If I don't work, I don't make money.

Even if you chose A, you surely know people in the other three categories. We in the U.S. wear as a badge of honor the fact that we rarely, if ever, take time off from work. We need to earn a living, and many of us like what we do, so our reluctance to take vacations is justified, right?

No, it isn't.

Leaving work behind for a period of time is not only acceptable; it is our ethical obligation.

Here's why.


With respect to the number of paid vacation days that employees get, the U.S. ranks toward the bottom of 49 countries, according to the human resource consulting firm Mercer. At most large companies in this country, employees are allotted an average of 15 days off with pay, aside from holidays. (Source:, June 13, 2007). This figure may sound impressive, but consider the situation in other countries: Australians, Italians, Latvians, and the Japanese get 20 days off; Swedes and Greeks get 25; Lithuanians get 28; and the Finns and French get 30. Imagine taking up to six weeks of paid vacation each year and not feeling the slightest bit of guilt in doing so. It's not a fantasy; for many, it is a happy way of life.

Many countries mandate paid vacations, but the U.S. is not one of them, so it's quite possible that many companies here view vacation days as a perk, a benefit, something above and beyond the call of duty. But for ethical reasons, it is a serious mistake for employers to view vacations this way, and it is just as wrong for employees to feel that they are being disloyal to their employer or their colleagues when they take time off.


Recall the five fundamental principles of ethics:

1. Do No Harm

2. Make Things Better

3. Respect Others

4. Be Fair

5. Be Loving

Also, recall that ethical responsibilities apply not just to how we treat others but to how we treat ourselves, too. Although ethics is fundamentally a guard against self-obsession, it is right and good to treat ourselves with respect, fairness, and compassion and to avoid causing ourselves harm.

Now consider two states of affairs: how you feel after working for a long time without a break, and how you feel during and after some restorative time at the beach. Can you really be at your best when you're running on empty? Aren't you more likely to do a good job when your batteries are recharged?

Taking a vacation from time to time enables you to do your job to the best of your ability, and this is one reason why vacations are an ethical issue. Another reason why it is ethical to take time off periodically is because we simply owe it to ourselves to rest. The ethical arguments for taking vacations are in fact similar to those for staying home when you're sick Doing the right thing for yourself and your clients means that when you've got a cold or the flu, you ought to stay home and get better. Being an ethical person also means cashing in those vacation days each year, out of respect for both yourself and those to whom you provide a service.


Let's look at some of the most common reasons for not taking time off, and how you can respond effectively to these challenges:

I work for myself/My employer doesn't provide paid vacations/I've been laid off, and I need to work.

The reluctance to give up some future revenue is understandable, particularly in our current economy. But how often is this an excuse, rather than an accurate reflection of one's financial or work situation? Taking a vacation doesn't have to mean gambling big in Vegas or flying first-class to Sydney, as fun as these trips may be. With "staycations" becoming more popular, time away from work can mean nothing more than sleeping late, watching DVDs, and eating lots of comfort food at home. We budget for meals, clothing, and transportation. Shouldn't we also budget for a vacation? Yes, there ought to be a law mandating paid vacations, but until that comes to pass, we'll have to find creative ways on our own to take time off.

I love my work, and I'm miserable when I'm away from it.

Maybe it's time to get a hobby. I'm reminded of Godfrey Reggio's astounding 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi. The title is a Hopi term for "life out of balance." It's wonderful to get jazzed up about one's job—I feel the same way—but a rich, meaningful life involves things beyond work.

Most of the people I work with aren't taking vacations, so I don't want to burden them with the extra work they'd have if I left for a while.

It's praiseworthy to want to avoiding causing undue stress on your colleagues, but you—and they—are entitled (ethically, if not legally) to some time off. Ultimately, the fair distribution of labor is a management issue, and employees shouldn't have to worry that a justifiable absence will result in an undue burden on the team.

I'm the only one at work who can do my job. The company, and my clients, can't afford for me to be away.

It's nice to feel wanted or needed, but few of us are truly indispensable, as much as we may hate to admit it. I submit that in most cases, the idea that you, and only you, can do your job is a delusion of grandeur rather than a reflection of reality.

I feel guilty when I take vacations.

If you're not yet convinced that it's ethical to take time off, perhaps it's time to talk with a trusted adviser about why you feel you aren't worthy of a trip to the mountains or the shore, or even just some time to yourself. You have every reason to feel good about treating yourself right, and vacations, however you choose to spend them, are self-indulgent in the best possible way.

Checking e-mail, taking work-related phone calls, and reading material related to one's job are not the elements of a true vacation. A working vacation makes about as much sense as showing up for a corporate job in shorts and a tank top with a margarita in your hand. To the list of things for which there is a time—a time to be born, a time to die, a time to weep, a time to laugh—one might add, "a time to work, and a time to take a long break."

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