Natalie Weikart's annual calendar fills with meetings well before she can think about planning a vacation with her husband.
When she does take time off, Weikart, coordinator of adult programming for the Howard County library system, returns to "4 million e-mails and voice messages that take 17 minutes to listen to."
"It does teach you a lesson," Weikart says. The lesson is: When you take vacation, "you get so far behind" at work.
As Memorial Day arrives, many hard-working Americans are likely anticipating their beach revelries long before they reach the coast. However, for a growing number of employees, that anticipation is being replaced by dread of the extra work that precedes and follows a vacation.
Even when those workers do take a break, chances are that many of them will pack a laptop or Blackberry along with a bathing suit and sunscreen.
Summer is upon us, but for a surprising number of American workers, R&R may not be in the picture. Although nearly 80 percent of U.S. employees are entitled to paid time off, nearly 40 percent will not use their full vacations, according to a report by the Families and Work Institute in New York released in March.
Of those employees who do take a vacation, more than one-fifth will work as they lounge, further blurring the already hazy line between their jobs and personal lives, according to the report, Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much. It seems that a leisure deficit has struck the country. The annual summer idyll that seemed to be the national birthright for much of the 20th century may be giving way to the "quasi-vacation" of the 21st.
And a quasi-vacation may not be enough, even for those loath to take time off, says Veda W. Ward, a professor in the department of leisure studies and recreation at California State University, Northridge. "Certainly all of the literature on mental health, domestic violence and abuse, unemployment, etc., suggests that vacations are needed," she says.
As they "promote fitness, fun and learning that occurs outside of the workplace," vacations lead to "increased job satisfaction, loyalty and productivity," Ward says. "Clearly it is not that we do not know or understand the benefits, but perhaps [that we] cannot craft policies that are both fair and flexible."
Blame the leisure deficit on a variety of reasons: a downsized work force, the demand for higher productivity, fear of work piling up while away, no time to take "use it or lose it" vacation and the conviction that you are indispensable.
Not everyone plans to pass up a vacation. It can just happen, "especially if you have a spouse or you have a partner and everybody's so wound up in work and your schedules don't work," says Weikart, who loves her job.
Now that her children are grown, Weikart has even less incentive to get away. "Who is organized anymore about sitting down in September and talking about what we should do in the summer?" she asks.
Compared with peers in much of Europe, where vacations as long as six weeks are federally mandated, American employees are programmed to work long, hard hours with relatively little paid time off.
According to a 2004 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, new U.S. employees get an average of nine paid annual vacation days. After five years, they get 14 days and must work 10 years to get 17 days and 15 years to earn 19 days of vacation.
Unlike the United States, countries with laws governing paid vacation have also developed mechanisms for coping with employees' long leaves, says Jennifer Schramm, manager of the organization's workplace trends and forecasting program. "People cover for each other," she says. Also, there are "different expectations about what gets done at different times of the year."
"Americans have never seemed to be as vacation-oriented or time-off-oriented as in some European countries," says Don Frye, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of civic and business leaders.
In lieu of a vacation this year, Frye says he will take several extended weekends off with his wife and son. As Americans, he adds, "it's just sort of been the nature of what we have been brought up with. If you work hard and keep your nose to the grindstone, ultimately success will come your way. It's ingrained in the work ethic we have."
And yet, Schramm says, "demand for vacation is likely to increase as the baby boomers exit the labor force and Generations X and Y begin to dominate the work force."
The "work/life balance is much higher on their list of priorities than it has been with previous generations," she says.
John B. Frisch, chairman and chief executive of the Baltimore law firm Miles & Stockbridge, attempts to balance work and family responsibilities on vacation, while realizing that his firm's "fierce client service ethic demands long hours and very intense hours."