Vacations Feel the Pinch, As Workers Feel Pressure Of Changing Workplace

Ask Tim how much vacation time he gets, and he looks as if you've just asked him to discuss Einstein's theory of relativity.

"Three weeks, I think," he says. "I actually don't remember."

He doesn't know because he rarely takes extended time off. Instead, he opts for a day here or a day there.

"It's not like the company tells me I can't take it," says the software consultant, who asked that his last name not be used. "I always feel guilty taking it.... I'm always too busy."

He's not alone. The days of the two-week vacation are vanishing. Instead, workers increasingly opt for a few long weekends throughout the year, rather than several weeks at the beach or a family trip to the Wild West.

A new study by Boston-based Primark Decision Economics reached a stark conclusion about your vacation time: You get less time off and you have to work harder to get it.

Primark found that the average US worker now receives less paid vacation than in 1987. In addition, private-sector employees must work longer to earn their vacation days.

Part of the reason is downsizing, which has left employees understaffed.

And with job security in the tank, some workers worry that being out of the office for too long sends a message that perhaps their job is dispensable.

"There definitely seems to be an issue about having so much more work to do and still trying to fit in a vacation," says Monica Gallagher, a spokeswoman at Hewitt Associates, a Chicago consulting firm.

Consider a recent survey of 400 workers who received paid vacation. They each earned an average 2.8 weeks of time off, yet used only used 2.5 weeks.

The most common explanation was a heavy workload, according Maritz Marketing Research, which conducted the survey.

Workplace psychologists worry that "not getting away from it all" now and again is a recipe for burnout. And that, they say, carries hefty economic implications down the road.

"Having a work force that is treated well and has time to relax and reflect ... is really important to the short- and long-term success of the company," says Marty Cohen of the Work in America Institute in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Take Wrigley Company, the Chicago chewing-gum maker. It allows employees to take some vacation time in single days.

"We recognize that people get a little stressed out and could use a long weekend to recharge their batteries," says Phil Johnson, director of benefits. Before, when the company didn't let workers break up their time, he says they'd call in sick on Friday or Monday.

But Wrigley doesn't allow employees to break up all of their time. "We ... believe that taking a prolonged period of time - at least a week - is very, very healthy," Mr. Johnson says.

"When I take a vacation," he adds, "usually it's the third or fourth day before I quit thinking about this place."

According to US Labor Department statistics, the amount of vacation time workers earn has stayed relatively the same.

Yet some economists argue that the work force, as a whole, is actually getting fewer paid vacation days than a decade ago.

And some argue that's part of the problem.

"There are a lot of workaholics out there," says Ken McDonnell, a research analyst at the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington. "There are some people who just feel the need to be constantly working, and they're not happy unless they're overworked."

Yet the time will come when they'll want to cash in.

Tim, the computer consultant, says he doesn't plan on being chained to his desk all summer.

"Golf season is coming up," he quips, "and I'm due for a vacation."

At Work and Satisfied

Despite dramatic changes in the American workplace - including less vacation, less security - employees are surprisingly upbeat. A survey by Hewitt Associates of 46,500 employees at 38 companies finds satisfaction among:

* 86 percent with work.

* 78 percent with their benefits.

* 72 percent with their managers.

* 88 percent with their co-workers.

Only about half are satisfied with their pay and feel recognized for their work.

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