“See you in a month!” one of our executives said as he stopped by HR to complete paperwork for his impending 30-day vacation.
My thought was: “What would it be like to take an entire month for vacation?”
I told him jokingly that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I had a whole month off. He admonished me and told me vacation is for rest and relaxation.
A culture difference
He commented that Americans have the wrong concept of vacation. He said, “You guys take a week here, a few days there, a long weekend.” As he said this, I knew he was telling the truth. As a matter of fact, he was talking about me.
Never in my working life have I taken more than one week of vacation at a time. Back when my wife and I went to Europe every year, we would joke that we always promised ourselves we would stay for two weeks the next year. The reason was that as soon as we were beginning to relax, it would be time to go home.
I’ve noticed that here in Saudi Arabia, every vacation request is basically for one month. However, the Americans that work here take just one week.
I recently did it myself when I took a week to go back to the U.S. I had one day to travel home, five days of rest and relaxation and another day to travel back (18 hours of flight). I felt like I needed another vacation after I arrived back in Saudi Arabia at midnight.
The length of the workday
When the workday ends, everybody leaves on time—except us Americans. We tend to be the last to leave.
When I arrive at my desk at 7 a.m. (the day begins at 8:30 a.m.), our cars are the only ones in the parking lot. My team members come in at 8:30 a.m. and leave on time at the end of the day.
Does productivity suffer? There is no discernible difference in productivity. Everybody works extremely hard, but they are on top of their business. When lunch times rolls around, they all get up and go out to lunch. I’ve never seen anyone sit at his desk and eat.
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People vacation differently outside the U.S.
According to Expedia’s Vacation Deprivation Index, some cultures treat the concept of vacation differently.
Here in the Middle East, people look at vacation through the eyes of Europeans. According to Expedia’s study, Europeans treat vacation as a duty rather than a perk.
Most European workers have between 25 and 30 days of vacation each year, in addition to state and religious holidays. Workers in France and Spain say they take off their full 30 days, as do workers in Brazil. Germans take off 28 of a possible 30 days, while British, Norwegian and Swedish workers take all of their allotted 25 days.
I asked one of our workers who had just come back from his home country (Turkey) what he did with all the time. His answer was simple: He spent it with his family.
I asked if he checked his email or called the office while he was out. “Never,” he replied. “I was on vacation. I left my No. 2 in charge, and he knew what to do. Outside of a huge disaster, he knew that he was not to call.”
I recalled a time when I was in Paris, and the apartment my wife and I rented did not have a strong Internet signal. I woke early one morning, walked over to the Internet cafe and logged into work to check and respond to email. When I arrived back home, my wife inquired where I was, and I told her what I did. The look on her face told me I was not to do it again.
Are you comfortable being away?
At my company, there is really no such thing as vacation days that roll over into the next year. Yes, it is on the books that you can carry over five days, but the only people who use that option are, you guessed it, the Americans.
Are we afraid of time or our jobs? Are our bosses that demanding that they make us feel like we have to stay in touch?
I’ve heard some people say they find vacations stressful. They say too much stress at work causes them to toss and turn throughout the week they’re off. They can’t relax.
When we do decide to take vacation time, we’re excited and look forward to relaxing and getting refreshed. On the other hand, we know vacation could throw us off kilter because it disrupts our routines.
In a lot of cases, we simply haven’t learned how to relax and let go. We begin to worry on the way to the airport or when we’re driving to our destinations. Our minds conjure up every possible stressor or scenario. For many, the stress starts on the day they walk out of work and into the bliss of a “relaxed vacation.”
Then there is technology. Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, text message or email, it’s extremely hard to disengage completely. It makes it hard to reach for the on-off switch, because it’s actually more like a dimmer.
“We have it covered”
One of the other differences I’ve noticed in Saudi Arabia is that people aren’t tied to mobile technology. The company does not offer devices, and you know what? Everyone collaborates just fine.
During my recent week back in the States, I called back into work and spoke to my assistant. I asked how things were going, and if there was anything I should know.
His answer said it all: “Ron, you are on vacation. Why are you calling? Go back to vacation. We have it covered.”
As I hung up, I thought, “Yeah, I like this.”
Ron Thomas is a chief human resource and administrative officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A version of this article originally appeared on TLNT.com.