German joblessness unexpectedly dropped in June and the unemployment rate remained close to its lowest level since reunification more than two decades ago, underscoring the strength of the domestic economy. 1 Today Germany’s unemployment rate of 5.4% (using OECD figures) is one of the lowest in Europe. Youth unemployment, below 8%, is half that in America and a third of the European average.2 Germany currently has the continent’s largest economy and the fourth largest economy in the world. 3
It’s safe to say that Germany is an economic powerhouse and yet, Germans get an average of 34 paid vacation days per year. 4 Some argue that paid vacation days don’t in fact lead to higher productivity 5 and of course, we cannot extrapolate that Germany’s economic success is a consequence of its ample amount of paid vacation days. However, many argue that paid vacation days play an integral role in establishing a better quality of life and work-life balance.
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, tells the following story in her book Lean In where she references one of her first bosses, Larry Kanarek: One day, Larry gathered everyone for a talk. He explained that since he was running the office, employees came to him when they want to quit. Over time, he noticed that people quit for one reason only: they were burnt out, tired of working long hours and traveling. Larry said he could understand the complaint, but what he couldn’t understand was that all the people who quit-every single one- had unused vacation time. 7
And he wasn’t alone in this observation: according to a 2010 Reuters/Ipsos Poll, “only 57 percent of U.S. workers take all the vacation days they are due.6 Sandberg also references a 2012 survey of employed adults that showed that 80 percent of the respondents continued to work after leaving the office, 38 percent checked e-mail at the dinner table, and 69 percent can’t go to bed without checking their in-box.” 7
Some researchers are concerned that our unrelenting strive to succeed may be impacting our psychological well being. Researcher Sabine Sonnentag of the University of Konstanz in Germany is concerned about our ‘inability to detach’ and has found that those who detach from work on a regular basis have a lower level of emotional exhaustion and higher life satisfaction.9 Work-life balance is being discussed more and more now in the US, facilitated in large part by the burgeoning field of positive psychology. Sonnentag also concedes that different people may require variant levels of detachment and that for some, “taking a Friday night family break from all electronics” would be a sufficient and important way to guard against burnout.8 This is particularly pertinent to the new generation of ambitious and driven Americans who are looking to be successful in demanding and high-stress jobs.
I chose to spend this past summer vacation working in Germany. I was reminded that travel engenders something even more valuable; cognizance. Travel fosters not only a deeper sense and understanding of the inner-workings of another culture, but also of our own. The experiences gained and the observations made, cultivate self-reflection and assessment. What do they have, that we don’t have? What do they do, that we don’t do? (And of course, the antithesis as well; what do we have that they don´t have?). Travel allows for cross-cultural and idea exchange that has the potential to improve all nations involved. As the world becomes ever more interconnected, travel and cross-cultural exchange will become increasingly important. And it’s also important to remember that exposure and openness to new ideas will ultimately allow us to grow and develop as individuals and, consequently, as a country.
Johns Hopkins University
7. Sandberg, Sheryl. “The Myth of Doing It All.” Lean in: women, work, and the will to lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 125-131. Print.