Congés Annuels – Annual Leave in France

In the months of July and especially August, it is not unusual for Tracy and I to see a local French businesses closed with a sign on the door saying, “Congés Annuels -Fermé” (closed for annual leave).

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I was recently visiting our local pet store buying dog food for Sami the MinPin and the proprietors made a point of reminding me that they would be closed for the month of August for their Congés Annuels.  So I purchased a second bag of dog food to get us through the month and wished them a bonnes vacances.

It is a norm for French people to take a month off in July or August for annual vacation with often entire businesses closing for the month.  Tracy and I are learning to plan our shopping and dining accordingly around Congés Annuels. Some French people identify themselves as “Julyists” (who take their month-long vacations in July)  and “Augustists,” (who take their vacation in August.)  Since we currently live in a tourist town where many French people visit during their holidays, some businesses and workers will take their Congés Annuels later in the year, often over the Christmas/New Years season. Coming from America, it’s a major culture shift to see these annual month-long holidays in France (and there are additional holidays throughout the year.)  The French have long cherished their vacation time with family and enjoying recreation prior to returning to their careers refreshed and rejuvenated.

France has a social culture that makes full use of holiday time, requires most businesses to be closed on Sundays, encourages turning off business cell phones after hours, and allowing office e-mails to wait for the following workday. France has a different tone toward vacation than we are used to in the US.  French people often see Americans as obsessed with work and unwilling to relax.  “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

It was interesting to learn that there is no statutory requirement for paid vacation in the US.  The US  is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t require employers provide workers with paid vacation.  This is especially true of low-wage workers, part-time employees, and workers at small businesses.  The EU requires “at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries.  Canada and Japan guarantee at least 10 days of paid vacation per year.”

Vacation laws by country CEPR
Vacation laws by country

Unlike 25% of American workers, I did have employer-paid vacation during my careers.  But I learned that in the US since “1976, (there has been) a huge decline in the share of workers taking vacations.  Some rough calculations show, in fact, that about 80 percent of workers once took an annual weeklong vacation — and now, just 56 percent do.”   “(In the US) 15% (of workers never) take any vacation at all.

The vacation company Expedia conducted a survey in the US and learned “that Americans are only using 10 of the 14 days they are given. That’s a whopping 577,212,000 vacation days left on the table.”  Glassdoor Survey say “61 percent (of) employees who have taken vacation/paid time off admit working at least some while on vacation. One in four (24 percent) report being contacted by a colleague about a work-related matter while taking time off, and one in five (20 percent) have been contacted by their boss.”  Tracy had a former boss (who was seriously lacking in managerial skills, but big into “letting people know where they are on the organizational chart”) who telephoned her twice about work matters during our honeymoon. (Yes, our cell phone was on in case of an emergency with one of the kids.)  Tracy was a graphic designer at the time and still jokes about the “urgent design emergencies” that necessitated interrupting our honeymoon; where she had no access to her work computer. And this was after having planned our wedding around the college’s publications schedule.

Why don’t Americans use their vacation time?  The Wall Street Journal says  “Workers pay a career penalty for vacation.” Although there are ” . .  ill effects of refusing to go on vacation, documented in research, include fatigue, poor morale, heart problems and reduced productivity,” according to Forbes magazine, people are afraid to take vacation time.   ” . . . (P)eople suffer from feeling like their employer really doesn’t want them to take time off.  In order to increase their sense of employment security, employees are trying harder every year to make themselves “indispensable.” This leads us to believe we really can’t be gone, or there will be a huge mountain of work facing us (and countless unpaid overtime hours spent digging out) when we return from a break.  Or worse, the job won’t be there when we come back.    . . . (C)all this the “work martyr complex.”  No matter how much we love family, we are martyrs to employers in order to keep that incredibly necessary, and fleeting paycheck. . . .  After 2 decades of CEOs who lead by “operational improvements,” causing round after round of cost cuts and layoffs, employees have learned that the day they take off could be the day their budget is slashed, or their job eliminated.”

While some businesses and organizations may believe they are enjoying short-term savings and productivity from unused vacation days, many other organizations are realizing the long-term costs of employee burn-out and increased attrition for their organizations.  Some US businesses and organizations are now trying to create a culture of encouraging employees to make full use of vacation time or even requiring its use.

Some workers are able to “roll over” vacation time to their advantage for planning an extended vacation or an extended maternity/paternity leave.  On retirement, Tracy had an exceptional option of having her remaining vacation days, along with her sick days, paid off at separation, an option she made full use of during our retirement planning. As faculty I had no vacation time or sick time at retirement (like many peoples’ excess annual vacation time) was “use it or lose it.”

In the mean time,  Tracy and I are enjoying the phenomenon of “Congés Annuels” in France and thinking how we would have greatly enjoyed the extra vacation time with our children when they were growing up.

No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’ ” ~ Harold Kushner

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