Washington Post Features UCG’s “Enlightened” Vacation Plan

Vacation Deprivation: The Lost Art of Taking Time Off

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006;

Are you running off to the beach this year? Is your car packed with beach umbrellas, rusty beach chairs, a BlackBerry, laptop and several cellphones? Are you taking just one week instead of your allotted two?

Then I guess you're all set.

That's because one in four workers plans to work while on vacation this year, according to's annual survey. (So is it still considered vacation? Or are you just working from a prettier office?)

Meanwhile, workers are expected to give back 574 million vacation days in 2006, depriving themselves of much-needed breaks, according to's annual vacation deprivation survey. The number of vacation days employees are skipping this year increased by one over last year. On average, Americans leave at least four days unclaimed annually.

"People in America don't take all the vacation time they should or could," said Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, which is based in the District. "People in this country, especially in this geographic area, actually work very hard, have very long hours and are under a lot of stress. . . . It's a very tough world out there, and unfortunately it has the effect of leading people to take less vacation or, when they take it, they take much of their work with them. And they are under a lot of stress and having problems balancing their lives."

Vacation, she said, could help ease stress and would, therefore, cut down on health problems.

Compared with other developed countries, Americans receive the fewest vacation days per year on average -- 14 days, as opposed to 17 in Australia, 19 in Canada, 24 in Great Britain, 27 in Germany and 39 in France, according to the Expedia survey. So not only do we earn less vacation time, but we also take less than we're provided. (Could this be the root of road rage?)

At least one company, however, has put the vacation dilemma into the laps of its own employees. UCG, a Rockville publisher of business newsletters, electronic magazines and directories, has had an open leave policy since 1994. That means none of its 1,000 employees has a set amount of sick leave or vacation time.

The enlightened plan stemmed from a realization that no matter the policy any employer puts in place, someone will ask to change or bend the rules. Because many employers have to go through all sorts of machinations when it comes to vacation time anyway, UCG decided to let its employees judge how much vacation they need and when. "We have a lot of respect for our employees, and they know what they need to get the job done," said Jerry Purcell, director of human resources at UCG. The employees need to work through their managers when they determine which days they need off. But there is no limit.

One gentleman took eight weeks to ride his bike across the country (you call that a vacation?), and another woman had the opportunity to tour China for six weeks after being with the company for just two months. UCG paid for two weeks of her vacation and provided half pay for four more weeks, Purcell recalled. "Every now and again, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up," he said. "I don't think you should have to sit there and say 'Well, I used my vacation last year.' Talk to us."

He said the amount of time people take doesn't really vary from a normal structured plan.

In yet another vacation survey (hey, this stuff is important, folks!) 20 percent of 400 workers surveyed had not taken a vacation, which is considered three or more consecutive days off, in the last three or more years. The same survey, conducted by TrueCareers, a division of Sallie Mae, found that 91 percent of respondents said the amount of vacation offered is very or somewhat important when applying for a job. But only 26 percent said they had considered changing jobs because of insufficient vacation time.

Chris McManus, however, did. He turned down a job offer several years ago because he wanted four to six weeks of vacation. He even tried to negotiate a lower salary to get more vacation, but the company said it was a no-go. "People say I'm crazy," he said. But this man needs his vacation.

McManus has since launched his own marketing consultancy, CenterStage Communications, in Brooklyn. Being a small-business owner, one would think he wouldn't have time for vacation now anyway. But in fact, he takes the entire month of August off. "I can't believe in the U.S. we only get two weeks of vacation a year. Then we're discouraged from taking two at the same time. Then we're to be accessible and do work on that vacation," he said.

He tells his clients that they can save their monthly fee in August while he takes a vacation or that he will reduce the fee and do a small amount of work while he is away. The fact is, however, things are slow in August, anyway. So he argues that he saves his clients money while also getting his own energy back.

This year, it looks as if he will be joining some friends who have rented a house in southern France.

"A week is not enough to whet my palate," he said. So when he takes a vacation, he really takes it. His trips usually involve touring foreign cities, and he tries to pick one starting point with a few stops along the way. "I go for a change of pace. I have a daily routine at home, and I love it. But for three or four weeks in August, I want to do something else."

And then, it's back to work at a frenetic pace -- which he can handle with aplomb, thanks to his month of vacation.