Canadians Sacrifice Wealth for Time Off

Brian Scudamore, president of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, didn't flinch at the thought of spending $319,000 this year to give employees at his company's Vancouver headquarters two extra weeks of paid vacation. Now, everybody who has worked there for more than a year gets five weeks off.

Canadians Sacrifice Wealth for Time Off

Brian Scudamore, president of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, didn't flinch at the thought of spending $319,000 this year to give employees at his company's Vancouver headquarters two extra weeks of paid vacation. Now, everybody who has worked there for more than a year gets five weeks off. "It was something we couldn't afford not to do," says Scudamore, who requires that his employees take at least two of the five weeks back-to-back. "People come back recharged, focused and with better ideas. We're even considering boosting it from five to six weeks." Scudamore, who turns 37 next week, hopes to be taking 14 weeks off by the time he's 40.

While Canada's king of the junk heap is an extreme case, experts say that the propensity of Canadians to take vacations has further widened the prosperity gap between Canada and the U.S. We WORK more than most Europeans, but Canadians are on the job 157 fewer hours than Americans every year, according to the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity. That's a full month's worth - of which 45 per cent is blamed on full weeks off (the fact that Canadians work fewer hours than Americans when they're on the job accounts for the rest). The average working Canadian takes 3.9 weeks off each year compared to two weeks for a typical American. And the more money and education you have in Canada, the more time you spend away from work. Meanwhile, "the rich guys in the States keep working and keep making more money," says James Milway, ICAP's executive director. "In the U.S., if you're highly skilled there's a bigger benefit to working than in Canada."

Time off is therefore much costlier for Americans. Paid vacation is less common and unions - which have reduced the number of work weeks and increased job security in Canada - are much weaker south of the border. U.S. productivity is driven largely by fear, as many Americans worry that a week or two at the beach could cost them their jobs.

While that doesn't sound like an ideal way to live, it's an essential part of the strength of the U.S. economy, and a big reason why Americans have more money to spend, on average, than Canadians. And yet, a large majority of Canadians, according to a poll conducted for Maclean's by Innovative Research Group, aren't willing to sacrifice their vacation time (72 per cent say "no"), or work longer hours (65 per cent) in an effort to close the gap.

But blaming vacation, says Walid Hejazi, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, ignores other important factors that contribute to quality of life: well-being and happiness. Hejazi says that the U.S. workforce is generally less happy than ours. And an unhappy workforce, he says, has higher turnover, which can also have a serious, negative impact on productivity.

Critics, however, claim that vacations are a drag on the bottom line for a few reasons: employees are less productive leading up to their time off; vacations disrupt the work of co-workers who have to cover extra responsibilities; and, even when an employee returns, it takes time to get back to full speed.

Hejazi says it's important to remember that productivity isn't just about working more hours. "It's about getting people to work more effectively," he says. "Canadians lag the Americans in hours worked, but we're also less effective when we do work."

At least we're well rested.

Maclean's March 19, 2007